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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A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lyric Hammersmith

A scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream @ Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. Created by Filter and Directed by Sean Holmes and Stef O’Driscoll (Opening 25-02-16) ©Tristram Kenton 02/16 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email: tristram@tristramkenton.com

I was ready to give up on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In fact, I pretty much had; after the last uninspiring production, I made a personal vow not to see it again for at least five years. It’s just too familiar, its contours too well-trodden. I studied it multiple times, acted in it at school, saw production after gimmicky production try to put a new sheen on it. I was done, I decided, with fairies and mechanicals.

So I surprised myself slightly by going to Filter’s version at the Lyric Hammersmith. I think it was the words “riotous” and “irreverent” that appealed. And never has marketing copy been so spot on. Filter don’t just rip up the text – they douse it in beer and pelt it with food. It’s Shakespeare meets panto meets Secret Theatre.

Filter, together with directors Sean Holmes and Stef O’Driscoll, have latched onto the play-within-a-play conceit, playfully multiplying the meta-theatrical frames. At the start of the show, Ed Gaughan’s Peter Quince steps out between the curtains to say a few words – a prologue, if you will. There’s a special guest playing Bottom tonight, he excitedly tells us after some hurried preliminaries. But when said special guest gets stuck backstage shortly after, it’s up to a game audience member to step up and save the day.

So this Dream is a play within a play within a play, and Bottom is actually an unprepossessing (if enthusiastic) amateur, jumping up on stage with shopping bags in tow. Except, of course, he’s not. This is scripted chaos. Yet the extraordinary thing about Filter’s production is that, for all the knowing meta-theatrics (and despite being a remount of a production first staged in 2011), it manages to retain a feeling of real seat-of-the-pants improvisation. As performers crash through walls or tumble down holes, there’s a constant feeling that this could all go horribly wrong.

In that sense, then, it’s absolutely in keeping with the clumsy craft of the mechanicals, who here become Gaughan, his backing band and their last-minute Bottom (Andrew Buckley). They’re just about holding together both the fiction of the show as a whole and the play within a play that exists inside it, easily flipping between Shakespearean dialogue and twenty-first-century colloquialisms. Elsewhere, there’s a lycra-clad, cape wielding Oberon (Jonathan Broadbent), a poutily unimpressed Titania (Cat Simmons), and four of the most demonstratively lustful lovers the play has ever seen (special mentions to John Lightbody’s hip-thrusting Lysander and Hammed Animashaun’s soulful, Marvin Gaye-style wooing as Demetrius).

Filter also have a unique take on Puck, played here by the company’s co-artistic director Ferdy Roberts. No airy sprite, Roberts is instead a scruffy, sardonic handyman, keeping the wheels of Oberon’s enterprise rolling through elbow-grease more than magic. It’s a nod to the hard work for some that usually sits beneath the fun of others, though this Puck also gets his fair share of mischief. Cracking open cans of Fosters, he lets the lovers’ quarrels unfold like a soap opera, watching on with a grin and only reluctantly intervening to undo the mess he has made.

Like Dmitry Krymov’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It) – another twist on Shakespeare’s play that has little interest in the text – Filter reveal to us the magic, the trickery and the silliness of theatre. Sound plays an important role here: the supporting fairies are nothing more that zooming, zipping sound effects, yet still you want to follow the noise in spite of yourself in hope of snatching a fleeting glimpse. Everything is mixed and produced on stage, but the absence of illusion only makes it all the more theatrical. Look, Filter say, this is how it all works – and still we as an audience want to be taken in by it.

The stalls are full of teenagers on the night I attend, and I find myself wishing I’d been taken to Shakespeare like this as a schoolkid. It’s full of joyous, ridiculous moments: spontaneous bursts of song, Oberon descending from above on a wire, a rapidly escalating food fight. And unlike any of those other productions I’d seen, this Dream feels full of life. Filter are irreverent when it comes to following the letter of the text, perhaps, but they create a theatrical experience with all the fun, mischief and pandemonium that the cheekiest of Shakespeare’s plays seems to demand.

Photo: Tristram Kenton.

Richard III, New Diorama Theatre

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There are plenty of shape-shifters in Shakespeare, but few as sinister as Richard of Gloucester. In The Faction’s characteristically stripped-back production, the play’s world of secret plots and political machinations also shifts shape around its scheming protagonist, its performers moulding themselves around the text. As a company, The Faction have always been committed to physicality over props, bodies over stuff. Here, that minimalist aesthetic is pushed to its limit. In the black box space of the New Diorama, the storytelling relies on nothing but the bare stage, the ensemble cast of 21 and the sculpting effects of light and sound.

So limbs contort to form thrones, ghosts, even Richard’s horse as he rides into battle. The most fascinating physical work, though, is done by the aptly named Christopher York as the eponymous rogue. Often, much is made in performance of Richard’s deformity – he is “not shap’d for sportive tricks”, he tells us in his opening speech – but here his physical impairments are as chameleonic as his mood. Confronted by his mother, he retreats into himself, fingers shrivelling up and back hunching over. Elsewhere, his disability is a tool for manipulation, emphasised to plead his case. But then in moments of confidence he suddenly straightens up, tall and broad-shouldered as a soldier.

And soldier he is in this take on the play. When we first see York’s Richard, it is at the close of a dynamic opening sequence of fighting, his vanquished opponent at his feet. But as civil war melts into uncertain peace, he looks less and less comfortable. This Richard itches as much for action as he does for power and the throne. The path he pursues is one of chaos and destruction – eventually for him, too, alongside the mounting bodies of his enemies. While early on he has the air of a confident, calculated politician, summoning and dismissing his pawns with little sweeps of the hand, in the latter stages of the play York suggests the instability and senselessness of Richard’s actions. He has the look of a man driven on by objectless blood-lust, regretting his crimes – such as the killing of one-time ally Buckingham – at the same time as he seems powerless to change his own power-hungry course.

Elsewhere, the success of director Mark Leipacher’s ambitious stage choreography is more patchy. While he’s brought together an exhilaratingly large and hearteningly diverse cast, the quality and tenor of the acting is often inconsistent – in some cases even across the duration of one individual performance. It makes for an odd mixture of styles, as some lines are declaimed as if from the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, while others are intimately or hurriedly delivered. Even worse, the effect of such dissonant contrasts finds itself amplified: in a production so reliant on its ensemble, small weaknesses can cause large fractures.

And while a muscular approach suits a text with epic scope like this, the use of movement can be as distracting as it is illuminating. There are some absolutely stunning moments: the light touches of multiple couples highlighting Richard’s initial isolation; the chanting fervour of the final moments before the interval; the chilling crawl of corpses towards the king’s sleeping body in the tent where he lies haunted by his deeds. At other times, though, action on the periphery drags our eyes from the supposed focus of a scene, unhelpfully splintering the drama.

2016 marks the fifth year I’ve kicked off by watching The Faction perform in their adopted home at the New Diorama. The company now feel like an established feature of the new year – part of the theatrical furniture of January and February. At their best, they have the ability to crack open classic texts, finding whole hidden worlds to inhabit. But while this latest production may have all of The Faction’s familiar hallmarks – stripped-back aesthetic, inventive physicality, an emphasis on the ensemble – it offers only a limited window onto Shakespeare’s drama.

Photo: Cameron Slater.

Measure for Measure, Young Vic

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Originally written for Exeunt.

From the moment the house lights fall at the Young Vic, there’s no doubting that this Measure for Measure is about sex. The curtains – plastic, wipe-clean – part to reveal a writhing orgy of blow-up dolls, painted mouths stretched wide, from which the cast emerge. At the show’s opening, Vienna is soaked in sin. The tight fist of the law has slackened and the people are running amok. In one sense, Shakespeare’s prickly, problematic play is one long tussle to reinstate discipline and restraint. Trouble is, sex – like those miniature mountains of blow-up dolls – is impossible to ignore or deny.

In Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production, everything about the characters can be read from the way they deal with this tangle of plastic limbs. Zubin Varla’s “old fantastical duke of dark corners”, dishevelled and wide-eyed, proclaims to “love the people” in the same movement as trampling his inflatable citizens underfoot. He wants to restore order, but he doesn’t want to be the one to do it. Instead, he appoints Angelo, a man who “scarce confesses / That his blood flows”. Prim as a village priest, Bible tucked under his arm like a comfort blanket, Paul Ready’s unlikely leader picks his way carefully through the debauchery, careful to at once ignore and avoid it. Revelling subjects, meanwhile, throw the dolls from hand to hand, finding pleasure wherever they can.

Then there’s Isabella. The first time we see her, Romola Garai’s nun-in-training wearily pushes all relics of earthly temptation out of her way, murmuring reverent words of prayer as she does so. No hanky-panky for her, nor seemingly any desire for it. When her brother Claudio (Ivanno Jeremiah) is to be executed as an example – his pre-marital sexual exploits here caught on tape in a sly nod to surveillance culture – she finds her voice, making a persuasive petition to Angelo. Garai’s Isabella might be forbiddingly austere, but she’s also steely and impassioned, positively spitting out the words “man, proud man”. Although she’s trapped in what is still, for all the modern dress, overwhelmingly a man’s world, she is not a woman to underestimate.

This is a Measure for Measure full of fascinating if sometimes incongruous character interpretations. Ready’s Angelo is a preening, cowardly tyrant, preaching with new-found vanity one moment and shrinking into corners the next. Overcome by desire for Isabella, he grasps uncertainly at one of the pillars enclosing the stage, desperate for something to hold onto in this new world of dissolving morals. For all his seeming meekness, though, the proposition he puts to Isabella is doubly unsettling for its tentative, insidious abuse of power – an abuse that is still painfully resonant. This Angelo could just as well be a smarmy businessman making advances on a young female employee.

On the side of the more open sinners, unapologetic pimp Pompey (Tom Edden) seems to have arrived in Vienna straight from the streets of New York, conning his way out of trouble with fast-talking, ad-libbing wit. His regular client Lucio, on the other hand, is a cynical and surprisingly clear-sighted transgressor in John Mackay’s aggressive performance, pursuing the disguised Duke with dogged suspicion. Stripping the text down to a slender two hours, Hill-Gibbins and dramaturg Zoë Svendsen have cut or minimised many of Shakespeare’s minor, comedic characters, rolling bumbling constable Elbow into Hammed Animashaun’s uniformed Provost and keeping brothel owner Mistress Overdone offstage. Instead, we see this side of Vienna via a brilliantly daft – if possibly superfluous – pastiche of 90s hip-hop videos, as drug- and sex-fuelled anarchy reins in open mockery of Angelo’s new regime.

There are lots of these bold but silly touches in Hill-Gibbins’ production, some more successful than others. When Cath Whitefield’s spurned Mariana rocks out to Alanis Morissette, it’s hard to know whether to read it as an ironic comment on the angry-woman-wronged trope or just a gag designed for easy laughs. Other stage images, like those ever-present inflatable bodies, are both absurd and articulate, making a statement on the play at the same time as revelling in their own strangeness and audacity.

Aside from all the dolls, the most striking aspect of Miriam Buether’s design is its allusion to the fiery and fantastical imagery of medieval religious painting. The back wall of the performance space, periodically sliding aside to reveal the police cell where justice is clumsily meted out, is laid out in three panels like a triptych altarpiece, projected both with scenes from Christian paintings and live streamed video of the performers (now something of a European-flavoured Hill-Gibbins trademark). In one scene, we see a close-up of Claudio’s desperate, pleading face; in another, a cackling painted devil.

And like those paintings, Hill-Gibbins and Buether draw out both the excess and the religiosity – hypocritical or otherwise – of Shakespeare’s play. For all their holy intent, artworks like Hans Memling’s The Last Judgement or Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights are a riot of colour and bodies and flames, as ridiculous in their own way as the piles of plastic flesh on the stage of the Young Vic. There’s no reason why the bizarre shouldn’t knock up against the Biblical.

Crucially, Hill-Gibbins and his team don’t attempt to solve the problem at the heart of Shakespeare’s play. Their interpretation embraces strangeness and ambiguity, its swirling soup of religious and pop cultural references never subsiding into a neat pattern. This is a dark play, for sure, but it’s also sexy and transgressive and funny and ludicrous. As the final scene awkwardly arranges the characters into their unlikely (and likely unhappy) pairings, that spiky contradiction that runs right through the play is slammed – like the dolls – centre stage.

Photo: Keith Pattinson.

Measure for Measure, Shakespeare’s Globe

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Originally written for Exeunt.

“Which is the wiser here?” asks Escalus, the Duke’s put-upon adviser in Measure for Measure. “Justice or Iniquity?” It’s a question that Shakespeare’s famously problematic play is constantly asking us. At its centre is a thorny moral dilemma, but often it’s the sinning and corrupt who seem to have the most fun. Is it better to uphold honour and ethics or to grab hold of life’s more earthly pleasures while we can? And in performance, where does the emphasis fall? On solemn debates about justice and morality, or on the lechery that the play’s authorities try and fail to stamp out?

For the most part, Dominic Dromgoole’s production takes the side of debauchery. Even before the play has begun, we’re immersed in a loud, bawdy version of Shakespeare’s Vienna, brimming with colour and sin. This is the liberal, licentious society that the Duke is about to take leave of, shirking the challenge of tightening the law’s reins. Instead, that’s the task of his unforgiving deputy Angelo, left in charge in the Duke’s absence. But Angelo’s crackdown is complicated when the pleas of nun-in-training Isabella, whose brother Claudio has been sentenced to death, are more persuasive than she intends. Faced with temptation, the question falls to Angelo: justice or iniquity?

As a debate on justice, mercy and hypocrisy, Measure for Measure is intellectually and rhetorically rich. To be more than a dramatised essay, though, it needs an injection of theatricality, which Dromgoole finds in Vienna’s less exalted citizens. There’s a delicious – if occasionally overstated – excess to the performances of Petra Massey as brothel owner Mistress Overdone and Brendan O’Hea as her unscrupulous client Lucio, who alongside Trevor Fox’s pragmatic pimp Pompey laugh their way around the newly harsh (and, in the case of Dean Nolan’s clowning constable Elbow, fumbling) law enforcement.

The plot’s creaky moments – the willingness of Mariana to leap into bed with the fiancé who jilted her; the convenient offstage death of a pirate who looks remarkably like Claudio – are likewise overcome with Blackadder-esque comic flourish, never pausing over inconsistencies. There are some darker shades, as women are dragged protesting from the streets between scenes, but on the whole this is a remarkably light Measure for Measure, not dwelling on the threats of death and damnation. The scales, the crucifix and the skull, gathered in small tableaux at the far end of Jonathan Fensom’s simple design, remain in the background.

But there’s nothing simple about the characters here. Angelo is no straightforwardly pompous, hypocritical Puritan, and Isabella is far from a saint. As the righteous man undone by desire, Kurt Egyiawan is hard to pin down. At first, his sudden lust for Isabella visibly overwhelms him, but the icy resolve shown in earlier scenes creeps back over him as he covers his tracks. As his unwitting tempter, Mariah Gale’s Isabella is earnest in her protection of her virtue, yet odd moments betray an underlying passion and pride.

And then there’s the Duke, a puppeteer with murky motivations for pulling the strings. It’s a puzzle of a role for any actor. Is this leader a would-be God, testing his subjects while he looks on, or simply a master manipulator out to get what he wants? Dominic Rowan plays him awkward and uncertain, making it up as he goes along, until in the convoluted final scene he steps back into the robes of power with a little too much relish.

There might be no revelation at the heart of Dromgoole’s interpretation, but this is a Measure for Measure that keeps its setting in mind. The Globe is about the groundlings, and this version of the play is about the people – flawed, passionate, pragmatic – who populate it. The problem posed by the play is never quite solved, but it certainly revels in the attempt.

Photo: Marc Brenner.