Text by Daniel Potts
Katie Mitchell’s acclaimed video installation arrived in Leeds on 14th February, and just as the carousel in the city’s Valentine’s Fair rotates and undulates carrying apparently happy lovers of all ages, Mitchell reminds us of an obverse mental maelstrom. The vehicle is Ophelia – Hamlet’s spurned lover – in her “mad scene”, which is experienced by the visitor five times at once through the interpretive prisms of Brecht, Artaud, Brook, Grotowski and Stanislavski. Each interpretation is presented on two video screens (therefore there are ten in all) within a darkened cube to be entered by the visitor, housed in the Howard Assembly Room. The screens, which vary in size, provide a double take on each interpretation and allow for simultaneous close-ups and shots further back. In each case, Ophelia is played by Olivier Award winning actor, Michelle Terry. Here, theatre meets film with convincing impact.
Of the five interpretations, the Brecht is the most easily recognisable. Here Terry supplies an aloof Ophelia, outwardly detached from the severe emotional trauma conveyed in the Grotowski, providing, with an eerie determination, her own narrative direct to camera. This self-commentary relates to and is interpersed with Shakespeare’s lines set to Kurt Weil-esque, cabaret-like music, somewhat reminiscent of The Threepenny Opera. The Grotowski itself is distinguished from the others in the use of icy black and white, which compounds with a horrifying starkness a most impressive hysterical, tremulous catharsis followed by listless burn-out. The intensity of the Grotowski Ophelia, as it accompanies the others, seems to provide them with a sort of emotional sub-text as the running depths to calm waters. This effect is most noticeable with the Brook and the Stanislavski. In the former, Ophelia methodically sorts items of symbolic importance to the relationship into a plastic bag. At first glance, given the context of the whole piece, it appears a sort of ritualised, healthy response to the bereavement; but as with the latter, where it is seems Ophelia is deeply moved without overtly demonstrated physical expression (an excellent performance), the Grotowski provides the emotional reality. The Artaud is full of distortion, sonically and visually – it is filmed from behind a fish tank. Ophelia’s face appears in distorted obscurity on the other side of the tank as she drops the items of importance into it. The distortion reinforces the sense of madness felt by the visitor as we try to make sense of the confusing sensory overload of the five interpretations at once, thus a degree of empathy is established with our heroine. The disturbing suicide by drowning echoes Millias’s Ophelia in the construction of the shot. In this way it taps into the sense of Romanticised tragedy we have about the character.
The piece is particularly poignant at this time of year. In the absence of official figures perhaps we can assume a statistical correlation between relationship break ups and the advent to Valentine’s Day. Of course, the piece has a much broader, universal resonance. The presentation of the scene in the different directorial styles highlights the multi-faceted nature of the individual as seen by others and by themselves. Aside of the sense of confusion and near insanity brought upon the visitor by his/her immersion in the work, an identification with at least one if not all Ophelia’s is possible. An identification with just one of the stylistic interpretations would perhaps betoken a degree of self-projection. Taken as a whole, self-projection on to all Ophelias results in an overwhelming sense of renewed identity and self-knowledge that generally follows rejection and bereavement. A piecing together of a formerly faceted identity into a more satisfying one is what is missing in the case of Ophelia. In this way, the tragic conclusion is imbued with greater pathos.
Five Truths itself forms the denouement of an interactive video installation trail by multi-media artists, Invisible Flock, which takes the visitor around the city centre. Without ruining the intrigue for the visitor, it is worth saying that this experience is most engaging and effective in heightening the empathy and pathos of the final part. However, as announced on the website, it is best followed after dark.
Five Truths, 14/02/2012 – 25/02/2012, Howard Assembly Room, Opera North Grand Theatre, 46 New Briggate, Leeds, LS1 6NUGrand Theatre, 46 New Briggate, Leeds, LS1 6NU. www.operanorth.co.uk
Aesthetica in Print
If you only read Aesthetica online, you’re missing out. The February/March issue of Aesthetica is out now and offers a diverse range of features from an examination of the diversity and complexity of art produced during the tumultuous decade of the 1980s in Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s, opening 11 February at MCA Chiacgo, a photographic presentation of the Irish Museum of Modern Art‘s latest opening, Conversations: Photography from the Bank of America Collection. Plus, we recount the story of British design in relation to a comprehensive exhibition opening this spring at the V&A.
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