'Ophelias Zimmer' review or 'Have you thought of re-decorating?'

Ophelias Zimmer, Alice Birch
Royal Court Theatre, 17th May 2016

I’m stumped. I spent so much time second guessing myself whilst watching director Katie Mitchell’s ‘Ophelias Zimmer’ that I ran out of guesses by the end. I have no idea what this hard edged and jarring production is meant to make me feel. I have a sneaking suspicion it’s not meant to make me feel anything at all – that’s it’s actually meant to turn me dead inside. Is that OK? Am I OK with that?

Let’s be a little bit more accurate. I did - in fact - feel something during this ruthlessly calculated reworking of Hamlet which, despite my reluctance, somehow reeled me in (although Christ did I want to be elsewhere for great chunks of this show). Mostly I felt the same thing over and over again: a deep frustration so strong that I could sense it working away in the pit of my stomach. I can feel it forming and squirming again now, as I type. Again, is that OK? Is this what I was meant to feel? Am I OK with a show that wants to make me feel like this?

The show unfolds entirely in Ophelia’s room (funny that) – which is a fairly stark and miserable place to be (the iron bed looks horrible). The room is set inside a sunken platform (Chloe Lamford’s design is subtle but cruel), which helps create the impression that Ophelia is trapped. This impression will solidify as the show hammers on, until we are all internally screaming to be set free. Again, I’m not sure if this is a good or a bad thing. God knows what I’d do if more theatre made me feel like this.

Alice Birch’s text is as hard and cool as an icy swim in winter (the text is performed in German and the English translation – in all its clipped agony – is projected above Ophelia’s head). Ophelia says very little. Instead, crazed and crushing advice from her absent (dead) mother and whirling protestations of love, and then hatred, from Hamlet are hammered out overhead. Hamlet’s letters have been recorded onto tape and Ophelia silently fast forwards and rewinds them, searching for something – presumably a little goddamn warmth – that she never manages to find.

There’s a passiveness about this Ophelia (played with required mechanical restraint by Jenny Konig) that will do your head in. Again, this might be a useful thing – or it might just be annoying as hell. The world happens to this Ophelia and she does nothing to stop it. Fireworks boom in the distance, sirens wail and lovers cry out in the darkness. Ophelia stands and listens. She moves in clean and pre-determined lines about her cage. She occasionally ventures outside. Quite where Ophelia goes is anybody’s guess (we do not see beyond the room), but she does wear boots. As the political tensions build overhead –and Hamlet makes a right old nuisance of himself – Ophelia is kept increasingly indoors. Her maid appears and tells her: ‘Not today, Ophelia’. Eventually Opelia does not even ask the question.  

An internal dialogue kicks off inside the head. The internal dialogue goes a little like this: GET OUT, GET OUT, GET OUT!

The lighting and sound mercilessly provoke us. The lighting states shift with increasing frequency and the stage switches between flickering and warm, shimmering and blue, glaring and intense. With each new lighting state comes a ping; ‘Ping’! These pings build and build: ping, ping, PING! To the side of the stage, two male actors – who turn out to be Hamlet and Polonius – create the sound effects. They jump up and down: they are Ophelia walking outdoors. They scuttle around outside, shut doors and turn the key. They might be foley artists but their faces carry far more expression than Ophelia’s. They often look a little bit nuts. They stand inside a small glass cage but they have heaps more autonomy than Ophelia – little O – supposedly the heroine of our tale.

Ping, ping, ping; oh how I longed to punch the maker of that sound! Flash, flash, flash; oh how I yearned for that endless grinding flashing just to end! But there is – of course – nothing I can do. I sit in the dark and endure the agony. When the show is finally over I get up and leave (do I drown my sorrows at the bar?), never to return again.


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