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Hamlet's doomed heroine ditches her loser boyfriend
A Katie Mitchell production is like extreme exercise – you either break through the pain barrier and get into it, or you don’t and belligerently wonder what the point of it all was.
I’m happy to say that I eventually broke through the barrier of ‘Ophelias Zimmer’, a show that’s pretty much auteur director Mitchell taken to the nth degree: essentially her idea (with a text by up-and-coming British playwright Alice Birch), it’s billed as ‘a new work exploring Ophelia, freed from Hamlet’, and is performed entirely in German (with English surtitles) and is perhaps wisely – given it’s not exactly commercial catnip – only playing at the Royal Court for a single week.
‘Ophelias Zimmer’ translates as ‘Ophelia’s Room’, and that’s what you get: Jenny Konig’s Ophelia, in her spartan bedroom. A maid often coems in to tell her that Polonius, her father, has forbidden her to go out that day; but at the same time the room becomes a kind of fortress, as Ophelia begins to wall herself in, to rebuff the events of ‘Hamlet’ that attempt to intrude.
As for that pain barrier: the play is divided into five parts, each prefaced by a projection detailing one of the five stages of drowning. The early stages are repetitive bordering on novelty: Ophelia dressing and undressing, taking her shoes off and changing into her slippers, listening to lurid cassette tapes sent by Hamlet, broken into short scenes punctuated by the maddening dinging of a bell.
Ophelia is presented without ‘Hamlet’ (the play) but not without Hamlet (the character) – ironically the show really finds its groove after a sequence where Renato Schuch’s unhinged prince bursts in, menaces the tiny Ophelia, then launches into a frenzied beta male dance to Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. It ushers in a darkening of tone and a pitch into despair that feels increasingly engrossing, especially as Max Pappenheim’s distorted string score begins to swell and grow.
I’m not sure if ‘Ophelias Zimmer’ exactly serves as comment on ‘Hamlet’ – the figure of the prince feels far too extreme. But as a graceful, hypnotic study in sheer, bloody-minded fortitude – specifically the fortitude of a woman digging stubbornly in against a male world in which the odds are hopelessly stacked against her – it has something. Konig’s Ophelia says very little, but her epic, doomed struggle is etched upon her face. And her final act feels less like one of despair than a last gesture of defiance.