I’m going to assume that you, the reader, are unlikely to see this show. It had a four day run in London and finished tonight. If you’re in Berlin I guess you might. The show’s in German. It was surtitled, although it didn’t really need to be.
Zimmer means room in german. The whole play takes place in the hypothetical bedroom of Ophelia. It’s an unremarkable space: a bed, a chair, a cupboard, a side table. The re-imagining of a Shakespeare play from another character’s point of view is not radical. Stoppard did it famously with Hamlet. In Montevideo, Percovich recently did it with the same character as Mitchell chooses here. Ophelia is fertile territory for this kind of project. She’s one of most underwritten characters in literary history. Her tragic denouement is somewhat thrown away by the original author.
The play is split into five sequences, each one announced by a projected sign which denotes the five stages of drowning. Each of these scenes, or sequences, is composed of a myriad of tiny, fractured scene-lets. They are denoted by a sound cue, always the same, and a change of lights. This is the play’s punctuation.
We are, assuredly, in the territory of deconstruction. Deconstruction of Hamlet, deconstruction of drowning. And deconstruction of the process of creating a work of theatre.
There is very little dialogue. Which is not to say there is none. There are three registers of dialogue. Firstly, a voiceover from a woman, perhaps Ophelia’s mother, perhaps just the voice in her head, instructing her how to behave. How to make herself small and fit in the cracks. Secondly, there is the voice of Hamlet, on tapes which he supplies, as letters, to Ophelia. Hamlet’s voice is playful, lewd, tender, manic, crazy. Ophelia fasts forwards and rewinds these tapes. (They are not the only Beckettian aspect of the play). At one point the tape has Hamlet’s voice say: To be or… Ophelia abruptly fast forwards. That moment got the biggest laugh of the night. The final register is the dialogue of Ophelia herself and four other characters who appear, including, explosively, Hamlet. Mostly she is spoken to by a maid. But the maid’s lines are as repetitive as her actions. She brings flowers, presumably sent by Hamlet. Ophelia and her exchange a few words about the flowers. She tells her she has to go and see a play, or that Hamlet is downstairs and wants to see her. The maid’s role is essentially that of messenger, a mechanism which helps the offstage action to be communicated.
This is a technical theatre where the lighting and the sound have just as much weight as the writing and the acting. It’s highly cinematic. In fact, the way the stage is set up, in part in order to permit the water to enter at the end, means that those in the stalls would have seen a different play to the one I saw in the circle. There’s a raised black section which cuts off the view from the stalls, suggesting the widescreen of cinema. Added to this is another mechanism taken from film. Three of the actors perform foley in a booth in the corner. They create the sound of the outside world. Feet on stairs, doors opening and shutting, keys in locks, feet running. The diagetic world is visibly deconstructed before our eyes.
Once again, this process of deconstruction. As a director of a play, you are aware of every moment, every beat. Moments which apparently have little importance are all part of the mechanics of the machine you are creating. Mitchell reveals this process to the audience. There is no seamlessness. It is all seams. (She has Ophelia doing crochet at times.) The play, like Ophelia’s descent towards suicide (the madness of suicide) is an accumulation of moments. Normally a director tries to hide this process. So that the audience lose themselves in the ‘story’. Mitchell does the opposite here. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s just as hypnotic as a conventionally-told narrative. Once you adjust to the sparse, staccato, rhythm of the piece, you become sucked into the story. A move from one side of the stage to the other has meaning. (Here again, the echo of Beckett, especially late Beckett.) The action is transparent and part of an elaborately constructed journey. A journey towards both madness and the end of the play.
Maybe for some, this becomes tedious. It might be seen as a purist’s theatre. Maybe in Germany it’s ten-a-penny, old hat. For me, it felt like a vision of the theatre freed from the tyranny of the word. I’ve never seen a show that did away as magisterially with the need for a playwright as this one (with all due respect to Alice Birch, credited in the program for “text” ) or, perhaps, which succeeded in showing how rich a non-writer-lead theatre could become. Which doesn’t mean to say that language is not important. Much of Birch’s ‘text’ has a poeticism which contrasts wittily or movingly with the austereness of the room and the staging. Whilst riffing off the untouchable original. A jazz score, if you like. But the point here, in this deconstructed theatre, is that the actions of the actors, the lighting designer, the composer, the set designer, have as much weight as the language.
I enjoy the transitory nature of theatre. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. When Ophelia’s Zimmer finished, with a wrong-footing flair, (she doesn’t drown), I didn’t want to leave the theatre. I wanted to linger in the play’s strange, hypnotic space. This space which had deconstructed everything and then put it back together again. A kind of clinical madness. Or a clinical kind of madness. Which might be another way of describing the process of staging a play.
So I cycled back across Hyde Park, Serpentine winking seductively, at me, at Ophelia, at Shakespeare’s ghost, and because I didn’t want to let the play go just yet, I put the bread on to cook and sat down to write these words.