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Ophelias Zimmer review at Royal Court, London – ‘impressively boring’

Jenny Konig in Ophelias Zimmer at the Royal Court. Photo: Tristram Kenton Jenny Konig in Ophelias Zimmer at the Royal Court. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Katie Mitchell isn’t the first to notice that in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, if you’re not actually playing Hamlet, your character gets a rough deal. Tom Stoppard famously refocused it around the overlooked Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and here Mitchell reimagines Elsinore from Ophelia’s perspective. Because, in Mitchell’s eyes, boy, does Ophelia get short shrift.

The character is little more than a function of the plot. She suffers for no real reason. And Mitchell is determined to make the audience suffer too. Ophelias Zimmer is test of patience and endurance. Her production, which premiered at the Schaubuhne in Berlin last year, keeps its eyes closely on Ophelia in her bedroom for all the thumb-twiddling time between the five scenes she has in Hamlet. So we watch her dress, sew, sleep, wake, dress, sew, sleep wake over and over again. It’s oppressively and impressively boring. Gripping, in a way. But still boring.

And boring in the sense that this seemingly endless cycle of repetition bores its images and its actions deeply into the mind. The way Ophelia puts on her shoes or climbs into bed in this functional room are as familiar – to her and to us – as if they’ve been decades in the doing.

The theatrical supergroup behind the production – as well as Mitchell, Alice Birch has written the text (performed in German with English surtitles) and Chloe Lamford is behind the design – make it clear that this is about putting women back to the forefront of a male-dominated story.

So they really have it in for Hamlet, whom they turn into a 90s post-punk adolescent: needy and increasingly unhinged, dressed in black, sending Ophelia rambling, angsty poetry on cassettes and loudly belting out Joy Division for no real reason. Birch’s sparse text also has him describe Ophelia’s pudenda in graphic detail (that certainly isn’t in Hamlet. Not even the bad quarto).

Boredom hangs in the air throughout, and Mitchell uses the great power of its cumulative effect. This room becomes like a prison, or a waiting room where Ophelia exists between her onstage moments. It’s easy to see why she goes mad.

Forget Beckett, this is a play in which nothing happens around a hundred times. In one of the very few moments when something happens, the supposed peace of Ophelia’s drowning as described by Gertrude is revealed in its true horror.

Jenny Konig, who had remained mostly silent and consistently impassive as Ophelia, worn down by a life of obedience, snaps when Renato Schuch’s creepy Hamlet brings in the body of her father. After a distraught outburst, her expression goes blank again – like the blank expressions of the maid and the rest of the cast – but without the boredom and acceptance that were there before; now there’s a shade of despair, of complete resignation. It’s a subtle performance, but quietly haunting too.

If the cliche about life flashing before one’s eyes is true, for Ophelia there isn’t much life to flash. But Mitchell, Birch and Lamford give that life their full attention. They value it for all its soul-crushing tedium and, hard as it may be, they challenge us to do the same.

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Katie Mitchell’s spotlight on Ophelia is impressively boring but also strangely gripping.