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Ophelia gets a go: Vicky Featherstone

An English/German cooperation to take down the patriarchy? Maybe. In co-production "Ophelia's Zimmer", the under-used heroine of Hamlet is explored. Royal Court artistic director Featherstone explains. Catch it at the Schaubühne Dec 14-16.

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Photo by Gianmarco Bresadola

Ophelia’s Zimmer, a look at Hamlet‘s under-used heroine, is on at the Schaubühne December 14 through 16 at 8pm.

The Schaubühne here in Berlin and the Royal Court Theatre in London have a long relationship, but Ophelia’s Zimmer marks the first co-production that will show at both theatres. After the run here in Berlin, the show travels to the Royal Court Theater in London in May. The play marks a robust collaboration between these two institutions: the director, Katie Mitchell, has ties to both the Schaubühne and the Royal Court. In it, we take a look into Ophelia’s room over the duration of the play Hamlet. It becomes clear how little time the character gets on the main stage, how often she is spoken for or about, and how much time she spends there, alone in her room. So what is she doing? And how does she die? Royal Court artistic director Vicky Featherstone elaborates.

Can you tell me a little bit about this collaboration?

I’ve been a colleague and peer of Katie Mitchell’s for a long time, and we’re always talking about how to push the boundaries of roles for women. And Katie and Chloe Lamford, who is our designer at the Royal Court, came up with this idea. They were talking about it because the Schaubühne has a version of Hamlet, and this would be a sort of a feminist antidote to Hamlet.

Could you tell us a little bit about the design of the piece?

There’s an incredible movement about design in Britain at the moment… a real fearlessness, breaking the boundaries. And Chloe Lamford is at the forefront of that. Chloe is always talking about the dramaturgy of design within theatre, not just “what’s the set?” So the idea is an installation-based work of art that the drama has been put into; it’s the opposite of the way that theatre is normally made. There’s this scene that is the five stages of drowning, and that was Chloe’s idea. So it’s incredibly collaborative. It’s also like that with the writer, Alice Birch. Alice is an extraordinary playwright from England – she’s been writing for a long time and people have just started to notice her. She’s very radical, very fearless. The three of them have been this triumvirate in creating it. I feel like they’re like a girl band.

What is it about this play that speaks to both British and German audiences?

I think it’s the ideas behind the play. Katie has been asked so many times to direct Hamlet, and she’s refused. And this is her response to that – which is, “Why would I direct such an incredibly male-oriented play?” The women, the two female characters, have no agency, ultimately, in terms of the outcome. And they literally are the baddie and the victim. Gertrude sets the whole thing rolling with her infidelity, so she’s the bad mother. I mean, it’s horrific when you break it down, isn’t it? And Ophelia is the suicidal victim. And that’s it! And then we’ve spent since the 1600s saying, “Oh, what an amazing role Ophelia is! What an amazing role Gertrude is!” and really celebrating these actresses. This play is Katie and I saying, “Enough is enough.” Why are we still perpetuating this and pretending it’s alright? If you actually look at Ophelia’s world in the play and what she does, this is what her world is like. It’s really shocking to see it. It’s incredibly repetitive, she’s just trapped in this room, and the biggest bursts of energy are when Hamlet comes in. Then he leaves again, and her life gets smaller and smaller and smaller as the play goes on. The images that the team has created to show that are amazing.

I worked with an actress this year, Maxine Peake, who played Hamlet in another production. It was a very important event in theatre, about a year and a half ago, and she was extraordinary in it. But later, she told me that it was alright for her to be playing Hamlet, but there was still an actress playing Ophelia. Still doing that role, which is just a victim.

Is a woman playing Hamlet a “female role”?

No, I don’t think it is. I want a playwright writing roles for women with a female sensibility, whatever that means, you can’t really generalise. And with a female sort of agency – that the character has agency as a woman in the world. I think that what casting a woman as Hamlet says is that those roles can be played by women. So that’s a kind of political act in itself, but ultimately I don’t think it’s really going to make change happen. I think we need to look at ourselves, and at the really white, male narrative at the heart of our culture and our discourse. Do we even know how to follow a female narrative? Do we give it respect? Do we think that what women are dealing with is important? Is it as important as a king? Is it as important as a tragic hero? These female figures are tragic, but not in the same way that Hamlet is given authority as a tragic hero, or Othello, or King Lear.

How do you retrain audiences?

It’s not even audiences, it’s society. That sounds incredibly general. How do we retrain society? But it’s interesting that television has been able to show flawed, brilliant female characters and we see so few on stage. There’s something about the private consummation of television that enables that, versus the public consummation of theatre. With television, we’re in the domestic space and we’re watching the domestic, it’s very comfortable. But I think in other contexts, outside the home, we demand more of what we’re watching: we demand more public heroes. I don’t know: there’s something about public versus private in this which I haven’t gotten to the bottom of.

There are so many domestic plays, though.

Yes, that’s true. But a lot of those domestic plays haven’t even been written by women, they’ve been written by men. The women in them – I’m generalising hugely, so this is terrible – are often tropes. Take Amanda Wingfield in Glass Menagerie, it’s one of my favourite plays, but she’s “the flawed mother “ and she imposes her flaw on Laura and Tom. That’s a play that’s only set in one room, so I suppose it’s domestic, but the women in it are very rarely genuinely heroic, with hubris, with tragedy. They don’t bring down society or a country. There’s no bigger threat than within the living room.