Katie Mitchell broke my heart (again)

The culture: ‘Ophelias Zimmer’ by Katie Mitchell, Chloe Lamford, and Alice Birch, Royal Court Theatre

The cheap seats: £16 central Balcony seat

My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced;
No hat upon his head; his stockings fouled,
Ungartered, and down-gyvèd to his ankle;
Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other;
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosèd out of hell
To speak of horrors—he comes before me.

And he danced to ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart‘ because words failed him (like Shakespeare failed Ophelia [and also did you know that Joy Division is named not after joy but after something really morbid from the Holocaust?]).

Google image search ‘Ophelia’ and your screen will be flooded with Millais’ Pre-Raphaelite beauties, all floating on water, surrounded by flowers, mouth open, at peace (though there’s a dark tale behind that painting, too). This is the Ophelia who has been submerged in our collective consciousness for so long, the Ophelia who floats into our mind’s eye when Gertrude announces her tragic death. This is not the Ophelia of ‘Ophelias Zimmer’, a new play by Alice Birch designed by Chloe Lamford and directed by Katie Mitchell. Their Ophelia (Jenny Konig) doesn’t die in flowery poetry, her skirts billowing around her, nor does she die in oils on canvas. Her death isn’t beautiful. Drowning isn’t beautiful. How horrible that we’ve always assumed it was.

Written in gorgeous, grotesque gut-punches of German, ‘Ophelias Zimmer’ is framed by the five stages of drowning:

  1. Surprise.
  2. Involuntary Breath Holding.
  3. Unconsciousness.
  4. Hypoxic Convulsions.
  5. Clinical Death.

I experienced at least two of these things. I left shaking. I will never watch ‘Hamlet’ the same way again. The next morning I woke up still more heartbroken after a dream of blood spatters and a lone shoe floating around Ophelia’s flooded room.

Victims rarely make any sounds. They are struggling just to breathe.

Her quiet existence is interrupted by her maid bringing flowers and her father calling “Ophelia!” and tea breaks and birdsong and flowers and calling and birds and cassette tapes and flowers and tea and calling and tapes and she leaves the room, she returns. She leaves, she returns.

And so on (and on, and on, and this is when people other than Ophelia started to leave).

She leaves. She returns. She sleeps. And flowers and “Ophelia!” and flowers, for dead things, and footsteps and tapes from Hamlet which she plays over and over, cutting him off mid “To be” and rewinding to her favourite parts instead. He declares his love for her, his plans for their life away from the rotten state, his dreams of her cunt. She stops the tape. She rewinds. His dreams of her cunt. He calls her a cocktease. He shouts “Fick dich” ad infinitum. She stops the tape. Rewinds. Fick dich Fick dich Fick dichFick dichfick dichfickdichfickdich.

The voice of her mother demands that she makes herself small. A sparrow. Little O. A pet name, a gasp, la petite mort avant la vraie mort, a full stop.

O.

But that O never comes. Hamlet is obsessed with the potential of Ophelia, loving her passionately from a distance and violently up close, but their strange affair is really little more than the frustrated fumblings of two separate, and separately tortured, souls. There can be no climax until Clinical Death. Before that there can be no ecstasy, only

  1. Surprise.
  2. Involuntary Breath Holding.
  3. Unconsciousness.
  4. Hypoxic Convulsions.

The rest is silence. Except I can’t be silent because I’m gasping for air and my teeth are knocking together and

O.

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