Ever since Virginia Woolf reflected on what literary history might have looked like if female authors hadn’t been hampered by a lack of space and freedom within which to write, the project of reimagining classic texts by uncovering the female stories that are so often marginalised or shaped by the travails of male protagonists, has proven both fecund and vital for feminist authors.
Ophelias Zimmer – the product of a collaboration between the director Katie Mitchell, the designer Chloe Lamford, and the playwright Alice Birch – retells Shakespeare’s Hamlet from Ophelia’s perspective. Hamlet’s affections suddenly start to seem both oppressive and self-centred. The same sequence is repeated many times over: he appears beneath her window, he shouts her name, and he sends her proselytising tape recordings. It becomes clear that their relationship is premised almost entirely on Hamlet’s need to express and record his passions, which switch erratically from idealising Ophelia to infantilising her to insulting her.
Ophelias Zimmer presents Ophelia’s eventual suicide as the inevitable result of her objectification. Her life is an endless round of putting on dresses and receiving tokens of affection: she is effectively an automated object of desire. When these routines are interrupted by the tragic circumstances we know of from the play, she finds that she is lost without them, as she moves across the stage attempting to recreate the patterns of her previous life. She has become hopelessly dependent on the routines that have been written for her.
Mitchell’s staging emphasises the way in which female lives are circumscribed by male narratives. Inside a visible sound booth, Hamlet himself records the foley for the piece: dispassionately observing Ophelia through a screen whilst providing the soundtrack to her life. Chloe Lamford’s design presents us with striking visual metaphors for Ophelia’s entrapment: a domestic interior encased within a perspex box, and which towards the end of the play fills with water as Ophelia’s drowning is reenvisaged as an emblem of the suffocating environment in which she lives.
It’s a bold and powerful piece. It’s also, oddly, boring. I think it’s fair to say that the audience grasped the meaning of the sequences long before they were over – leaving plenty of time for idle reflection. I don’t doubt the intentionality of the protractedness of the piece: its boringness is important. Ophelia is bored. She’s bored by Hamlet and she’s bored by life – and I don’t doubt the importance of encouraging an audience to feel that. My problem is more that this fatigue pulls away from our ability to relate to the pain she endures in the play’s final sequence – and this, it seems to me, is a more important experience for the audience to undergo.
But it’s an excellent piece. Proof if proof were needed that Mitchell is the UK’s bravest and most original practising director (even if she has been away for some time…).