In A Room of One’s Own Virginia Wolf pondered ‘how a woman nowadays would write a poetic tragedy in five acts. Would she use verse? – would she not use prose rather?’ Wolf breaks off her speculative questions, acknowledging that these ‘lie in the twilight of the future’. At this future present time, Ophelias Zimmer, written by Alice Birch, designed by Chloe Lamford and directed by Katie Mitchell, evinces a creative response to Wolf’s line of early twentieth-century questioning. A co-production between the Royal Court Theatre and the Schaubühne, the play opened in Berlin on 8th December 2015 and transferred to the Court for a brief, five-day run (17th to 21st May 2016).
Like Wolf, the trio of women behind this production are concerned with the gender bias of the ‘great’, male-dominated tradition of literature and the arts. These are Shakespeare’s contemporary sisters: creative women who descend not from the bard but from his sister Judith as Wolf imagined her, the woman for whom writing was impossible given her gender and material circumstances. As such, their creative labour resists the canonical text of Hamlet by focusing instead on the minor, marginal figure of Ophelia (Jenny König).
Strip away all of the scenes in Hamlet in which Ophelia does not appear and you are left with five which structure Ophelia’s imprisonment within an abusive patriarchal narrative:
A young girl is told to reject the advances of her boyfriend in case he wants to have sex with her. She tells her father that her boyfriend just burst into her room and gripped her arm and shook her. The girl is taken to the palace with all her private love letters to meet her boyfriend and must then pretend to be alone with him even though she knows the king and her father are watching. She goes to see a play that her boyfriend wrote in which he accuses his step father and mother of murdering his father. The girl visits her boyfriend’s mother and is no longer able to speak coherently or behave in a sane manner. (Schubühne broadsheet)
Working out of this narrative arc, Birch, Lamford & Mitchell revisit Ophelia not as a Romantic ‘document in madness’ as she has come to figure in cultural representations, but as a young girl whose daily life, behaviour and actions are confined by and sutured to structures of patriarchy. And from Shakespeare’s five-act tragedy, Ophelias Zimmer moves to a quintet of scenes announced as the five stages of drowning (Surprise; Involuntary Breath Holding; Unconsciousness; Hypoxic Convulsions; Clinical Death).
Birch’s text (in German with English surtitles) is minimal and dominated by the recorded voice of Hamlet – taped declarations of his love for Ophelia that she plays back on an old cassette recorder. These declarations become increasingly vulgar ‘sex tapes’ that Ophelia ceases to play, boxing them up to store in her bed, or at other times letting them spool out of the cassettes. Silent in the opening sequence, Ophelia comes into voice in the second but is barely audible given a father who forbids her to go out and the voice of her dead mother urging social compliance.
It is Mitchell’s direction that puts physical bones on the skeletal text. With the action confined to Ophelia’s bedroom, the rhythm of the play is shaped by the choreographed movements within the room: a maid (Iris Becher) who comes in and out (rather like a prison warder); an Ophelia who puts on and takes off her shoes, gets in and out of bed, or receives and rejects bouquets of flowers. Costuming adds to the feel of feminine entrapment: Ophelia clad only in white underwear at the start, is bundled by the maid into layer upon layer of dark coloured dresses. Each dress is ritualistically rolled up by the maid, pulled over Ophelia’s head and down her body like a sheath that gets bigger and bigger, making it harder for her to move. Overall, the repetition of these everyday actions lends a sense of the durational to the piece – both in terms of aesthetic and the feeling of and for Ophelia’s confinement (clearly not to everyone’s liking, as there were many walkouts mid-way through the nearly two-hours playing time).
Punctuating these movement sequences is a temporal patterning indicated by changing lighting states (accompanied by a ‘ping’) and sounds created by the actors in a glass-fronted booth at the back of the stage. This technique is a signature trait of Mitchell’s which in this instance serves to create the off-stage world of Elsinore that we hear but do not see, trapped as we are in Ophelia’s room. The booth of sound-making men (sometimes joined by the maid) evokes the idea of patriarchal surveillance, but in tension with a metaphorical sensing of the desire to ‘lock’ the controlling power out of Ophelia’s story. When that power breaks out of the booth to take centre stage as, for example, in a highly affective moment when Hamlet (Renato Schuch) enters to shake and shout at Ophelia, and dance to Joy Division’s ‘Love will tear us apart’, then its destructive force is fully felt.
Lamford’s set design further aids the feeling of feminine entrapment: with its sparse furnishings – a cheval mirror minus the mirror, or iron bedstead – Ophelia’s space is prison-like. The room is also set within a large metal tray so that in the closing ‘clinical death’ sequence it can contain the water that begins to seep under the door. The on rather than off-stage suicide of Ophelia abjures the Romantic image of her as famously depicted in Millais’s painting: a self-inflected slashing of the body sees red blood seep across the white sheet of the bed and a heavily clad corpse slide down into the water to float among a multi-strewn mass of flowers and bobbing shoes. An aquarium-styled tank drops down over the room to finally display the dead Ophelia like an exhibit in a museum of natural history – or, more accurately, perhaps, a museum of cultural history that locks its female subjects into a violent, masculinist gaze.
With its woman-centred focus and textured ‘language’, Ophelias Zimmer reminds of Cixous’s seminal call for ‘writing’ women. And yet, as this collaboration between Birch, Langford and Mitchell renews that feminist line of resistance it also sounds a dystopian note: the extant need to break with masculinist cultural and artistic traditions, a rupture that close on a century after Woolf and despite numerous interventions on the part of feminist writers and practitioners, is still ‘in the twilight of the future’.