Wednesday, 22 February 2012

'Five Truths' video installation, Howard Assembly Rooms, Leeds 13th Feb 2012

I was lucky enough to visit this intriguing piece of work on its opening night and the introductions from the Opera North and Victoria and Albert Museum personnel really helped set the scene. Up to that point I'd had no real idea what it was I had come to see - exciting in itself - and the rest of the experience was based on a similar level of ignorance, but in a thoroughly involving way. I found out that the V&A collect performing arts materials and that this project came about from research into a production of Hamlet directed by Stanislavski. No film of the performance survived and this led to a consideration of the 'truths' around theatrical performances. There can never be a right or a wrong production but every director endeavours to bring a new interpretation to even a well-known play like Hamlet.

The result of this research is 'Five Truths' - five performances of a single scene by five different directors, each one showing Ophelia descending into madness and played stunningly by the same actress Katie Mitchell. The five performances were videoed and then shown on two screens each, within a darkened room.

Needless to say, having entered this magical dark space the effect of these screens playing out such a harrowing scene was mesmerising, confusing and at times distressing. I found myself unsure how to view the work, standing in the middle and just glancing around or concentrating on one performance at a time. In the end, knowing I was to blog about the event I chose the latter, but of course I couldn't ignore the other performances going on around me. The almost silent and internalised Stansilavski interpretation kept being interrupted by the heart-rending wailing of Grotowski's Ophelia descending in a shuddering Bedlam of madness.

Each performance ended with the actress drowning herself and this immediately took the performance away from the stage production to the filmic since I'm sure Ophelia's drowning occurs off stage. Our images of the event come from the cinema or even pre-Raphaelite art. This raised the question of how well I knew the play, clearly the Brecht performance had substituted some modern language about credit cards and other financial stuff for Shakespeare's words and I then began to notice other alterations and stretching of the original school texts I studied. What of course I couldn't know was how representative of the styles of the different directors these films were, since I assume they all directed stage plays rather than film versions.

An altogether fascinating experience then, a wonderful combination of the visceral and the intellectual. I came away wanting to know more about the history of theatre direction and also remembering some of the live performances of Hamlet I have enjoyed over the years including one in Bulgaria in a floodlit castle patrolled by policemen carrying guns!

'Five Truths' continues until 25 February 2012 and there is also a 'Who Is Ophelia' installation trail around Leeds which looks rather good. Details here

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