Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Ophelias Zimmer, Royal Court, 17 May 2016

Jerwood Theatre, Downstairs, Royal Court

Cast: Iris Becher, Ulrich Hoppe, Jenny König, Glyn Pritchard, Renato Schuch

Katie Mitchell (director)
Chloe Lamford (designs)
Alice Birch (text)
Fabiana Piccioli (lighting)
Max Pappenheim (sound design)
Nils Haarmann (dramaturgy)
Lily McLeisch (associate director)

I do not usually write here about visits to the spoken theatre, or the cinema – not necessarily because I have nothing to say, but more so as to have some occasions for a ‘night off’. However, in this case, not only did the Royal Court kindly give me a press ticket; the identity of the director, Katie Mitchell, had me think it might be interesting to write something from the standpoint of one who has seen quite a few of her operatic stagings too.

There has recently been quite a furore about Mitchell’s Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden (as well as Cleansed at the National Theatre). Not having seen the production, I cannot comment, although the hysteria aroused before people had seen it led me to suspect that this was another instance of Against Modern Opera Productions-style philistinism. (The Royal Opera did not, admittedly, help, by essentially issuing an apology to those delicate souls who might be offended. Frankly, if they were not, art would not be doing its job.) Mitchell’s operatic work has, in my experience, been mixed. Idomeneo for ENO was not for me a success, to put it mildly. However, Le Vin herbé in Berlin worked very well, bringing an oratorio to life that maintained its distance from opera whilst also releasing some of its ‘operatic’ quality. There was much to be said in favour of her Salzburg Al gran sole carico d’amore (even though I preferred Peter Konwitschny’s staging, which I saw that same year, 2009). However, it was perhaps After Dido, for ENO, a theatre-piece taking Dido and Aeneas as its starting-point, which most struck me, and has continued to do so.

That experience is perhaps also most relevant for Ophelias Zimmer. Not that this is necessarily entirely Mitchell’s show. She is credited as director; the text is by Alice Birch. We need not worry ourselves about who did precisely what; collaboration is surely the point. And here, this collaboration between the Royal Court and the Schaubühne is very impressive indeed. It had me thinking about all manner of metatheatrical questions; indeed, it still has. It is a ‘new work exploring Ophelia, freed from Hamlet’. Is she, though? It is certainly a work in which her Zimmer, her room, features strongly: not just as setting, not just as constraint and restraint, but also as part-metaphor, part-instantiation, part-various-other-things, for Ophelia’s drowning. Split into five parts – the first four relatively lengthy and feeling so, the final, the moment of death, brief, each preceded by an explanation, written and spoken, of the stage of drowning – it is a work that places Ophelia centre-stage. Not that she wishes to be; not, still more, that we have wished her to be. We might earnestly applaud that she now is, but how many of her reactions are, at best, still conditioned by the novelty of the experience? Do we actually long for Hamlet, especially when presented with such mesmerising physicality as by Renato Schuch? He is outside most of the time, looking in, trying to break in; do we not actually feel relieved when, finally, he breaks in? That may or may not be a metaphor; it is certainly an event. He terrorises her, of course, just as he has been all along, sending her cassettes on which he has recorded his thoughts, his desires (not least with respect to her ‘little wet cunt’). Narcissistic as ever: we nod, of course, applaud ourselves on restoring some balance, on adopting a radical new standpoint. But the violence of the moment in which he possesses the stage, gyrates to his music, repeatedly pushes her into her place: have we not ourselves wanted that whilst congratulating ourselves on our insipid liberalism?

Such is one of the questions that occurred to me repeatedly, and has continued to do so. Likewise the usual metatheatrical questions. Max Pappenheim’s sound designs – are they Hamlet’s, or Ophelia’s father’s, from the glass box? Are they ‘in’ Ophelia’s head? – in some respects dominate, but as much in their manufacture, and their ownership, as in their substance, whatever that might be. Is drowning the actual deed? Eventually, water begins to fill the stage. However, Ophelia has been drowning before that? Is that a metaphor? Or is the theatre-piece a metaphor for drowning? If we decline the either/or, what are we left with, or what might we yet create? Ophelia retains, regains some agency; she decides what to play on Hamlet’s tapes, what to rewind, what to repeat. Or does she? Can she actually any more prevent herself from listening to repeated, angry cries of ‘Fick dich! Fick dich! (Fuck you! Fuck you!)’ any more than she can prevent herself from following the dictates of this ‘new work’? Might she actually have been better off as she was? What are we (what is the theatre-piece) doing to her? And why, even her, particularly here, does she speak so little? Has anything changed at all? She meets her end, after all, through dubious medical treatment semi-forcibly administered to her, eventually having to end her life, just as she always has done.

This, then, is dialectical theatre, or at least can be understood, experienced as such. It is undoubtedly feminist theatre. In many respects, it is, I think, intensely psychoanalytical theatre; it certainly has us interrogate ourselves and our reactions. Was this what Mitchell intended, even accomplished, in that recent Lucia? I have no idea. However, I have no doubt that many opera-goers would have resisted such a theatrical impulse even more strongly than some of those seated behind me, who noisily walked out, disgusted at the ‘bad language’, did on this occasion. I could not help but think that part of this work might have had its roots in Nono’s flawed feminism as well as the ‘straight theatre’ of (The) Waves. Or that such might, at least, in Nono’s dramaturgical terms, have been a ‘provocation’, just as Hamlet undoubtedly had been. You, I am sure, would have different questions haunting you, were you to attend; it is highly recommended, if you can, that you do. That unusual turn - for me - to the second person is as self-conscious as it sounds. And that, of course, is as self-conscious a gloss as it sounds. Ophelia is still dead.

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