‘Five Truths’ Review (LEEDS, UK)Posted: February 15, 2012
WHAT: Video installation
WHERE: Howard Assembly Room, Opera North (map)
WHO: Katie Mitchell (Director), Michelle Terry (as all five Ophelias)
WHEN: 14th – 25th Feb, 12. 2-8pm (excluding Sunday)
MY STORY: Entering the Howard Assembly Room through a set of double doors, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. The eerie dark blue lighting, mixed with stifled echoes of heels and hushed voices, gave the whole place a strange atmosphere. It was as though I had just been completely disconnected from the outside world, ‘and in short,’ as Prufrock said in my favourite TS Eliot’s poem, ‘I was afraid.’
I walked down the hall and entered the installation. It took the form of a relatively large box room, lit only by the 10 variously-sized TV screens on the walls. The screens came in pairs – one large, one small – and each pair showed a different take on the famous scene in Hamlet when Ophelia goes mad and drowns her pretty little self. The large screen usually showed the bigger picture, and the small one would focus on a different angle or display a close up. Each pair was created to imitate the style of an eminent 20th century director, namely Brook, Artaud, Brecht, Stanislavski and Grotowski.
I must pause here for a moment and make a confession. Not having grown up in a particularly film-loving environment (Dad allegedly only took Mum out to the movies once back in the day), I hadn’t a clue what the style of any of these famous people were. All is not lost, though, because the best thing about ‘Five Truths’ is that you don’t necessarily need to know that information. In fact, I’d even say that I was glad to have been able to view the performances with an open mind, free from any preconceptions of what they would or should embody.
The ten-minute clips were played on loop, timed so that they all began and finished in unison. There were two ways of viewing them: you either attempt to watch them all together, or you focus on one pair at a time. I tried the former, but settled for the latter after realising that I couldn’t keep up with all of them simultaneously. The technique I chose, however, had its own problems. Picture this: you’re watching a calm Ophelia silently examine a bunch of wilted flowers, when suddenly a hysterical Ophelia starts screaming from another wall, and then yet another Ophelia bursts into song in a ridiculously matter-of-fact way. How do you stay focused? The short answer is that you can’t – but I don’t think you are indeed supposed to.
Because I opted to watch the five clips one by one, it meant that I ended up staying in the room for nearly an hour. The result was rather psychologically disturbing. The longer I stayed, the more claustrophobic I started to feel. I felt as though I was trapped in one of those moments in a movie right before the character goes mad, when images and sounds and lights and emotions whirl around their head before they collapse. It wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience, but I would argue that that is precisely the point and the genius of the show – we are almost urged to become Ophelia ourselves.
Before we entered the show we were asked to think about which director’s version of Ophelia we related to the most. ‘Which do you recognise?’ the description on the flyer challenged. ‘Which Ophelia are you the closest to?’ Those were difficult questions. If I must give an answer I would say that Artaud’s one is most similar to my reading of the tragic heroine. In his version, her inner demons are reflected in the warped reflection of a fishbowl. She is sometimes quiet, sometimes wild; her cries are muffled, but the raging hysteria is always apparent.
However, the more complex answer that I would prefer to give is that it is the combination of Ophelias that complete my interpretation of her character. I didn’t necessarily agree with all of them – I thought Brecht’s Ophelia, for example, was too factual and detached for such an emotional scene – but it was the way that they were all played out together that gave Ophelia the depth that she warrants. As the name of the installation suggests, all five versions are ‘Truths’, and there is no right or wrong amongst them.
Olivier Award winning actress Michelle Terry plays all five Ophelias, which makes the whole experience even more intense and gripping. Her performance is absolutely fantastic, and she successfully enacts each version with the same precision and sensitivity that is required of both the character and the scene.
A wonderful installation all in all, and I cannot recommend it enough. It will be on until Saturday 25th Feb, so do find time before then to plunge yourself into the unknown and experience the meaning of true madness. Go on, I dare you.