Ophelias Zimmer, Royal Court

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In Katie Mitchell’s bleak re-centring of Hamlet, Ophelia is sinking from the start. Before we even see her, projected text and a voiceover tell us about the first of five stages of drowning. And when we do see her, she’s dragged under the waters of misogyny, submerged beneath layer upon layer of clothing. Thrash as she might, there’s no way back to the surface.

There’s a brutal inexorability to Ophelias Zimmer. For a start, we know where this is heading. Mitchell’s piece, created in close collaboration with writer Alice Birch and designer Chloe Lamford, trades heavily on its audience’s knowledge of Shakespeare’s play. From the moment the house lights go down, we’re anticipating Ophelia’s madness and watery death. More than that, though, inexorability is built into the very structure of Ophelias Zimmer. It plods, slowly, deliberately and relentlessly, towards its inevitable conclusion.

As the title suggests, the entire action (or inaction) of the piece is confined to Ophelia’s bedroom. The events of Hamlet, plotted out meticulously according to the play, all occur around this peripheral point. Most of the time, though, we watch the deadening routine of Ophelia’s life. She gets up, goes for a walk, reads and sews. Flowers arrive every day, every day tossed straight into the bin. Letters – or, as they are reimagined here, cassette tapes – arrive from Hamlet and are listened to, fast-forwarded and rewinded. An occasional cry of “Ophelia” summons her out of the room.

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This is choreographed boredom. Tedium distilled. Each scene change, each jump forwards in time, is signalled with a ping as horrible and relentless as the bells that heralded torture in Mitchell’s production of Cleansed. Through it all, Jenny Konig’s Ophelia stares out with a chilling blankness, movements as controlled as the routine that dictates her quiet, contained life. She seems to be obeying the instructions of the intermittent voiceover we assume to be her dead mother, making herself as invisible and inaudible as possible in this rigidly patriarchal world.

Ophelia might be moved to the centre of the narrative, then, but Mitchell pointedly does not offer her a voice within it. As in Hamlet itself, she barely utters a sound. And when she does speak, her words are more habit than expression. “The flowers again,” she dully intones each morning as the maid brings in a new vase. While Hamlet might be robbed of his soliloquies (in a rare touch of humour, Ophelia cuts off his “to be or not to be” by promptly pressing the fast-forward button on her cassette player), Ophelia gets none of her own. Instead, she is confined to a disturbing silence that speaks deafeningly of the misogynistic world of Shakespeare’s play.

But can Ophelias Zimmer really be thought of as a feminist re-framing of Hamlet? It certainly reveals what Mitchell sees as the horrific treatment of Ophelia, including by Hamlet, exposing the careless misogyny of a character who is enshrined at the heart of the dramatic canon and with whom we are so often asked to sympathise. Yet still it restricts Ophelia to quiet, helpless misery, giving her no more agency than she has in Shakespeare’s telling. The whole narrative of the show, meanwhile, is structured around Hamlet and its controlling cast of men. Shakespeare’s play is the scaffolding holding up this piece, its male characters dominating from offstage with their comings and goings and shouted demands.

Hamlet himself is imagined by Mitchell and co as a brooding, moody narcissist, clad in black and wrapped up in his own worries. His messages to Ophelia, progressing from romantic cliché to sexually explicit plea to expletive-filled abuse, are all ultimately about him – his desire, his pain. On one of the few occasions when we actually see him, he bursts into Ophelia’s room brandishing a Joy Division record. He then goes on to play and dance to the soundtrack of his own suffering, wilfully ignorant of Ophelia’s.

Wildly thrashing his limbs to “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, Renato Schuch’s Hamlet invites an immediate comparison with Ian Curtis, a man tragically obsessed with death and determined to inhabit his own myth, even to the extent of his own destruction. But every act of destruction has its accidental victims, its civilian casualties, of which Ophelia is one. This is Hamlet as careless egotist, focused on his own meandering path to revenge at the expense of all others around him. While he dances, lost in indulging his own emotions, Ophelia sits in a chair and sobs.

This is one of a series of characteristically stunning theatrical moments that break up the monotony of Ophelia’s daily existence. Just as my attention threatens to drift away entirely, I find myself dragged back by a brilliant sound effect or by the slow, terrible seeping of water into the space. As ever with Mitchell’s work, there is an austere precision that can be disengaging, but as soon as one of those moments interjects I’m brought back on board, that knot in my stomach tightening again.

Immediately after the show, Tom Cornford tweeted that Ophelias Zimmer is “about the katiemitchellest thing you can imagine”. I know what he means: the horrible beauty, the compelling boredom, the pin-point precision, the intellectual rigour, the underlying queasiness, even the foley booth at one side of the stage producing the sounds that underscore Ophelia’s existence. While watching, I was reminded in particular of two other Mitchell pieces: her Schaubühne production of The Yellow Wallpaper – the claustrophobia, the mounting unease, the strange combination of boredom and nauseous tension – and the haunting video installation Five Truths.

The latter was Mitchell’s first take on Ophelia, whose madness was seen through the lenses of five twentieth century theatre practitioners: Constantin Stanislavski, Antonin Artaud, Bertolt Brecht, Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook. Here, Mitchell adds her own interpretation, and it is utterly uncompromising in its starkness and tedium. I struggle with it in the moment of watching, but I am also completely convinced that this oscillation between detachment and uneasiness is exactly what I’m supposed to be feeling. This is a life and death that Mitchell is determined not to prettify or over-dramatise.

As in Five Truths, the climax of Ophelias Zimmer offers an echo of John Everett Millais’s famous painting, but with a bloody twist. In Mitchell’s version, death is not beautiful or romantic or even straightforwardly tragic; it is brutal and ugly, a violent and sudden last resort. No wonder it’s usually kept offstage.

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X, Royal Court

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Everything in X is slightly off-kilter. Literally. Merle Hensel’s great grey box of a set is permanently tilted at an angle. The sort of angle that’s just enough to shift your perspective on your surroundings. The sort of angle that’s just enough to start you questioning things.

The same goes for the psychic world inhabited by the characters in Alistair McDowall’s new play. It’s a physical and mental landscape that is out of joint. It’s also out of time. The collection of crew members occupying this bland, functional capsule are billions of miles away from home and the rest of humanity, clinging on at the far reaches of the solar system. The sun is barely a faint flicker this far out; it is, as one character puts it, “one long night”. No days, no markers, nothing to hold onto except technology. And technology can go wrong.

That’s just what has happened as the play opens. Or, at least, something has gone wrong. After an eighteen-month stay, the first scientists to colonise Pluto are due to be picked up and returned to Earth. Except Earth isn’t answering the phone. There’s been no contact for three weeks and the crew at the research base are starting to get restless. “We’re all a bit … fraught,” says second-in-command Gilda (a nervily hair chewing, cereal chomping Jessica Raine), with delicious understatement.

At first, X is essentially a workplace drama – if one with heightened stakes and shrunken surroundings. Imagine being trapped in the same featureless space with your workmates for months on end and you begin to get the picture. The situation is desperate, but also banal. Colleagues bicker over contracts and kill the time with games of Guess Who. There are arguments about who hasn’t done the cleaning. Nerves are frayed.

But then McDowall’s play mutates. Just as it threatens to drag, its pulse – and ours – quickens. Ray (Darrell D’Silva), the captain of the crew and the astronaut who shipped them all out to Pluto, starts seeing things in the empty gloom of the not-quite-planet. Cole (Rhudi Dharmalingam) notices that the clocks have been going back by themselves. There’s a glitch in the system, a ghost in the machine. No one knows how long they’ve been stranded here, and no one is coming to pick them up. Suddenly we’re in the realm of psychological thriller, the confined research base (packed with provisions that will outlast them all) becoming a pressure cooker for the crew’s fears and tensions.

And then things get stranger. And stranger. And stranger. As the display on the digital clock scrambles, so too does time and memory and identity. Ray’s not the only one who’s seeing things. Or is he? There’s a crew member who’s maybe a crew member, or maybe a ghost, or maybe an echo of a memory, or maybe their rescuer. Maybe. False memories multiply and compete. Months or years or decades slip by. Nothing can be trusted. Eventually, even language breaks down, fracturing into single syllables and then just a vomited stream of ‘X’s. All that holds it together at the centre is Gilda, who’s sent spiralling further and further into herself.

It’s baffling and bewildering, but then it’s meant to be. The whole point of X lies in the same ambiguity that characterises its title. X can mean many things. A kiss. An error. The elusive answer to an equation. X marks the spot. In McDowall’s play it is all of these and more. And it’s distinctly, thrillingly theatrical. Sat in our seats at the Royal Court, watching these bodies on stage in front of us, we’re more aware of time passing than we would be behind a screen, where the pause function is always just a tap away. We feel time, which is crucial to this play about time dissolving.

Vicky Featherstone’s production, meanwhile, makes equally canny use of the space of the theatre to tell this fractured narrative. Prolonged blackouts dare us to see our own fears in the enveloping darkness. In between, Lee Curran’s lighting casts a queasy, subtly shifting synthetic glow, under which the characters sweat and squirm. Nick Powell’s sound design, with its nods to sci-fi, gestures towards the cinematic while working with the performances to slowly turn up the tension in a way that only a live art form can. And when things fall apart, Tal Rosner’s video designs transform the dull walls of this enclosed space capsule, twisting the strange world of the stage that bit further out of alignment.

What’s most haunting about X, though, is not the exhilarating theatrical effects or the familiar hint of space horror: the little girl at the window, the spectre of something scary in the deep, deep darkness of outer space. The production is having fun with these elements – and temporarily spooking the hell out of its audience in the process – but what lingers afterwards is the exposed fragility of time and memory. That out-of-joint-ness that doesn’t quite go away after walking out of the theatre and allowing the world to right itself.

Because we might not be on Pluto, but our senses of self are no more robust, really, than Gilda’s. Strip away clocks and relationships and familiar places and things and what are you left with? As McDowall himself has pointed out, in some ways it’s not really all that significant that the play takes place on Pluto; it’s the extreme distance of this place from home and all things known that really matters. And time is both as artificially constructed and as inexorable in its passage for us as it is for this imagined crew. The implicit questions raised – about what we remember, and what we don’t remember, and how we hold onto an idea of who we are – resonate far beyond any sci-fi setting (and the best sci-fi does, after all, have a habit of playing on our deepest fears and preoccupations).

The other thing that haunts is the pervasive atmosphere of loss. X isn’t just a play about being far from home. The home these characters yearn for is one that has already been lost – ravaged for profit and rapidly consuming itself. The snippets of information we gradually glean about this future Earth are horrifically bleak: birds have fallen from the sky, whole continents have been swallowed by the sea, trees have disappeared. It’s ecological crisis writ large. The skill of McDowall’s writing, though, is to imbue these horrors with a chilling normality. This is just the way things are. (And, I sense with a shiver, it is just the way things will be if we continue down our current track of blithe environmental destruction.)

Then again, that’s just one way of seeing it. Tilt your head at another angle and other interpretations reveal themselves. That’s the beauty and the occasional frustration of McDowall’s play, which refuses to narrow possibilities. Like that huge, off-centre grey box, it’s a container for meanings and fears and memories. X, after all, can mean many things.

Photo: Tristram Kenton.

Escaped Alone, Royal Court

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Originally written for Exeunt.

It’s not just the tea that’s brewing in Caryl Churchill’s new play. Beneath the sharing of a nice cuppa, something much nastier is simmering away. While four older women sip from their mugs in a sun-bathed garden, premonitions of catastrophe lurk behind their innocuous chit-chat, breaking through in pitch-black interjections. Over the course of less than an hour, the world ends seven times over: with floods, with disease, with fire. Sugar, anyone?

Escaped Alone is a bristling, baffling thing. Running at a brisk 55 minutes, it’s somehow huge and minute all at once. Compared with the formal somersaults of some of Churchill’s previous work, though, the structure is deceptively simple. It’s split into two alternating parts: in one, old friends Sally, Vi and Lena drink tea with neighbour Mrs Jarrett in Sally’s garden; in the other, Mrs Jarrett steps out of the frame of this scenario to deliver bleak missives from humankind’s downfall. Or, as the Royal Court’s blurb pithily puts it: tea and catastrophe.

Churchill’s title is borrowed from the Book of Job (“I only am escaped alone to tell thee”), and there is something oddly Biblical about this play, with its visions of apocalypse and its undercurrents of allegory. Linda Bassett’s affable yet enigmatic Mrs Jarrett plays the unlikely harbinger of doom, sent to warn us all of out-of-control, man-made catastrophes. Or perhaps warn is the wrong word, as these various Armageddons are all relayed in the past tense, laced with the bitter tang of inevitability. There is nothing to be done.

There are nightmarish touches of brilliance to these imagined disasters. In one, we are told – with characteristically surreal Churchill flair – that “the chemicals leaked through the cracks in the money”. Another conjures a world in which food is siphoned off to television programmes, leaving the general public to starve in front of cookery shows. There’s visceral horror, in images of survivors trapped alone underground and people eating rashers of their own fat, knocking up against inky dark humour – even if the gags do feel a little easy at times, airdropping in wry topical references to selfies and property developers.

Churchill is having no less fun in the garden-bound half of the play, in which her female quartet execute scenes of meticulously choreographed gossip. They chat about their grandchildren, about their pasts, about what superpower they’d like to have. This chorus of banalities is all delivered in distinctive Churchill half-sentences, clipped and careful. There’s clearly a shared vocabulary among these old friends. And again it’s rich with terrific moments. In one sequence, the women simply sing The Crystals’ hit “Da Doo Ron Ron” and it’s an absolute joy. Each character also takes their turn to break from the conversation and segue into a strange, disturbing monologue. It’s Sally’s inner voice that startles most, spilling out a breathless and absurd speech about her debilitating phobia of cats. Delivered with mounting intensity by the excellent Deborah Findlay, shoulders rounding protectively while hands nervously flutter, it’s one of the show’s highlights.

It’s the join between the play’s two halves that is more troubling – both interestingly and frustratingly so. You could say crisis and tea are never far apart, but otherwise the relationship between garden and apocalypse is left deliberately opaque. James Macdonald’s taut production at once maintains this ambiguity and gestures towards possible links. The small pauses in conversation – subtle and precise – suggest something more beneath the chatter. Miriam Buether’s design, meanwhile, has more than one nod to the void opened up by Mrs Jarrett’s bleak interludes. The garden, overgrown and vivid and lit by a bright, warm glow, is a sort of idyll, but there’s an odd emptiness to the grey-blue skies above that makes it feel as though it could be the last green refuge in the universe. Looked at this way, its contrast with the blackness that engulfs the intervening scenes, intensified by a flickering red neon surround, seems less stark than it first appears. For all that, though, it’s hard sometimes to fight the suspicion that these are simply two interesting scenarios to riff on, and that the whole is given less attention than its (admittedly intriguing) parts.

Nonetheless, Escaped Alone is never less than watchable, thanks in huge part to its fantastic cast. Much has been made of the fact that this is a play for four women in their sixties and seventies – a demographic still seen with shameful rarity on our stages. While the swift running time means that we can only ever get shards of these characters’ personalities, they’re pretty damn fascinating shards, giving the actors plenty to work with. Alongside Bassett’s slippery Mrs Jarrett and Findlay’s cat-fearing Sally, Kika Markham does delicate work as Lena – introverted yet occasionally spiky (“I do get out,” she indignantly insists) – while June Watson peels back surprising layers in unexpected ex-con Vi.

If there’s anything that holds the piece together, it’s the incessant, latent fear of the present moment that we live in. The paralysing terror that Sally feels when confronted with the idea of cats and the wilful delusion that has become a coping mechanism (“I have to believe there are no cats. And then briefly the joy of that”) might well stand in for any number of twenty-first century threats: ISIS, climate change, global pandemics. Mrs Jarrett’s catastrophes, meanwhile, are a potent cocktail of ancient fears and very contemporary preoccupations. It can often feel that we are living in the end times – or perhaps just on the brink of them – a feeling that Churchill uncannily captures. This is, to quote REM, the end of the world as we know it.

Now then, who wants a cup of tea?

Photo: Johan Persson.

Penelope Skinner

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Originally written for The Stage.

Penelope Skinner asks me: “Do we believe that women in general are hungry for stories about them?” The writer, whose plays have all hinged on complex female characters, quickly answers her own question: “I believe that they are.” These are the stories that Skinner often sets out to tell, countering a theatrical establishment that is still largely interested in male-centred narratives. “It happily coincides that I’m also most interested in telling those stories,” she continues. “I don’t think I could do anything else. I feel driven to tell those stories.”

Like many theatremakers, Skinner was first drawn to the art form as a child, when she was taken to see a stage adaptation of The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien. “It was really amazing,” she says, “and kind of life-changing in how magical it was and how transported I felt to a completely different world.” It was not writing that she initially aspired to, though, but acting: “I think I just assumed I wanted to be an actor.”

While acting “didn’t really work out” for Skinner, it did introduce her to new plays. “I moved to London to try to be an actor and that was when I became aware that people were writing new plays,” she remembers. Enthused by this fresh wave of drama, Skinner started regularly attending shows at new writing venues such as the Royal Court Theatre and the Bush Theatre, where she had a memorable encounter with Jack Thorne’s play When You Cure Me.

“I found it a very meaningful experience watching the play,” Skinner tells me, “but something about it made me want to write something myself.” Ten years on, she struggles to put her finger on quite what it was about the show that inspired her, but she suggests that it was “something about that experience, something about feeling that the audience had responded a certain way and feeling that something more needed to be said”.

Read the rest of the interview.

Photo: Bronwen Sharp.

 

RoosevElvis, Royal Court

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ELVIS: I always saw my life like it was a movie. Ever since I was a little kid.

Ever imagined your life as a movie? Not the movie of your life, all carefully edited highlights and an actor with much better hair in the lead role. Just day-to-day life seen through celluloid: getting ready in the morning, heading to work, going out for drinks. The banality of routine made exciting through the frame of Hollywood.

It seems only right that The TEAM, a company at once in love with and critical of Americana, should go to the movies. The outlines of Hollywood, so often overlapping with those of the American Dream, were there in Mission Drift, but RoosevElvis takes on that most quintessentially American of film genres: the road trip. Except this road trip is one – as per the title – with Elvis Presley and Teddy Roosevelt: two very different American heroes and two very different versions of masculinity.

I mention Mission Drift because it’s hard not to watch RoosevElvis through the remembered lens of that earlier show. Even just thinking about that production exploding across the stage of (the venue formerly known as) the Shed, all sexy chaos and soul-shattering songs, makes my heart beat a little faster. It was a show that locked horns with the American Dream and the history of capitalism by embracing the messiness, the unruliness, the unencompassable hugeness of its subject matter. It was all excess, bursting at the seams with images and ideas, yet the unrestrained aesthetic felt completely apt.

RoosevElvis has just as much going on, but the mash-up is slightly less convincing. It’s grappling with a hell of a lot: gender, sexuality, images of American masculinity, heroes and icons, the mythology of the roadtrip, the intoxication of adventure. As in Mission Drift, there are two main strands: the struggle undertaken by Ann, a lonely and lost 35-year-old in a dead-end job at a meat-processing plant, to find herself on the road to Graceland; and a hallucinatory meeting between Elvis (Ann’s hero) and Roosevelt (Elvis’s own hero in turn). And it’s all performed by two women – The TEAM’s fantastic Libby King and Kristen Sieh – in glorious, pointedly fake drag.

When we first meet Ann, she’s hooking up with Brenda, a visiting taxidermist she met on the internet. Brenda is everything Ann isn’t: self-assured, wisecracking, thirsty for adventure. As she puts it during their three days together, the reserved Elvis fan is “remarkably unbrave”. (That particular choice of words – “unbrave”, not “cowardly” – lands with a surprisingly devastating weight.) As her time with Brenda comes to an abrupt end and she struggles again with her identity, Ann conjures the spirits of Elvis and Roosevelt and the three of them hit the road, making a meandering pilgrimage to Graceland.

This all takes place within a makeshift film set, surrounded by screens playing snippets of Thelma and Louise and a series of movie-like on-location scenes, gorgeously filmed by Andrew Schneider. There’s more than a hint of The Wooster Group to this ubiquitous presence of televisual media, as movies become absorbed into the texture of everyday life. Thelma and Louise is a thematic and aesthetic reference point throughout, in fact, its simultaneous homage to and subversion of the road trip buddy comedy providing a blueprint of sorts for The TEAM. Here, again, two women critique the centrality of very particular ideas of masculinity to the American psyche – only these two women are playing two men.

King and Sieh’s embodiment of the two famous men smashed together in the title is one of the show’s great joys. The aptly named King lends Elvis both swagger and vulnerability; he can entrance the world with a swing of his hips, but yearns for his momma’s love. Also playing Ann, King deliberately blurs the edges of the two roles and the genders they represent, the same submerged melancholy bleeding into both characters. Sieh’s riotous Roosevelt, meanwhile, is a hyperactive pastiche of rugged yet intellectual manliness, burying emotions in books and hunting trips. It’s an incredible comic turn, made all the more impressive by its contrast to the persuasive naturalism of Sieh’s performance as Brenda.

RoosevElvis is a show of fantastic moments. Roosevelt throwing ridiculous punches at projected buffalo on a screen. Roosevelt and Elvis (or “Elvees”, in Roosevelt’s Katherine Hepburn-esque accent) lounging in a motel room, the latter in a monogrammed dressing gown. A finale that flips from the laugh-out-loud to the poignant and contemplative in an instant. Between these moments, though, it often veers from the road, going off into digressions or tipping the absurdity just that bit too far. Teddy and Elvis’s little skits, while ushering in most of the laughs, rarely move the narrative forward. I begin to wonder, as other interesting fragments of ideas around privilege and legacy periodically surface, whether the piece has taken on just a little too much.

But what The TEAM are great at, as ever, is pulling apart the threads of American mythology. In the opening scene of the show, as the two icons at its heart compete for attention like movie stars at a press conference, Roosevelt launches into a segment from one of his speeches. There’s a pause. Then he says, grinning, “what a great quote”. The twenty-first-century portrait of the USA drawn by The TEAM is one of national culture as quotation and national identity as an awkward yet enduring assemblage of freighted symbols.

This all resonates, too, with the construction of personal identity – a fraught ongoing battle for Ann. Whatever the show’s stumbles, there’s something brilliant about the staging of a queer woman’s journey towards self-realisation, in the process hijacking a narrative form that is so often (as the inserted biographies of Elvis and Roosevelt – always gently subverted by the simple fact of the casting – make clear) dominated by (straight, white) men. RoosevElvis might be critical of the traditional markers of American masculinity – guns, aggression, arrogance – but it also opens up the possibility of a new sort of identity, one still connected to but not hemmed in by the long chain of past heroes.