Five Truths at the Howard Assembly Rooms

Sometimes, when at the theatre, I can get a little distracted. You see, I find the concept of acting endlessly fascinating, and there are times when I’m just staring at the person on the stage, wondering what they’re thinking, why they chose to use that tone of voice, whose idea it was to add the pause before that word, and how long it took them to perfect that twitch. When I see the understudy in a role, I wonder whether I’m getting the same experience as I would have the night before, and find myself inwardly cheering them on as they enjoy their moment in the spotlight.

Last night, the BAFTAs were on TV, and Viola Davis presented the award for Production Design. (Yes, I know, I’m getting to Five Truths, I promise.) She said something along the lines of, creating the overall look and feel of a film is an enormously difficult task and those who do it are incredibly talented and deserve recognition. And I thought, yes! Yes, they do! The mood of a film is vitally important, and as well as production design, there’s lighting designers, costume designers, make up artists, location scouts, set designers, special effects…they all contribute to that. It just hit me how many different elements are involved in my experience of watching something, and that a few little decisions here and there can hugely affect the end product.

The thing is, you’ll very rarely know how, will you? Because they don’t make two versions of films, one with an easy listening soundtrack and one set to heavy metal, or one filmed entirely in the rain and one on a summer’s day. The closest you’ll get is remakes, or seeing two productions of the same play, or going to see the same production several times. Nine times out of ten, it’s not going to happen.

And this is where Five Truths comes in.

It’s an installation. A large box, essentially, you can get thirty or so people in there comfortably. On the walls are five pairs of screens of varying sizes, and each pair is showing a version of Shakespeare’s Ophelia, going mad and then drowning. Each version is in the style of a great theatre director of the twentieth century; there’s Brook, Artaud, Stanislavski, Brecht and Grotowski. I was a bit reticent to blog about this, because I knew I would have to admit that I’ve never seen, read or studied Hamlet, and I’m a bit defensive about that sort of thing. I’ll get to it, I’ve read loads of good stuff and tons of Shakespeare, I just don’t happen to have got to that particular one just yet, okay? I considered reading it at the weekend to get up to speed, but on reflection I decided to go in to the experience with only my basic knowledge, and experience Ophelia as a performance rather than words on a page.

Anyway, the screens play on a ten minute loop, and as luck would have it, we walked in just at the beginning of a loop. It was disorientating at first; with so many screens and so many different things happening, I didn’t know where to look. At first I decided to take the screens one at a time, but I soon realised it wasn’t going to work like that. At different moments, different Ophelias grab your attention. It’s fascinating: the same actress, following the same script, but creating a vastly different experience.

The most believable to me was Grotowski’s; a broken, grieving woman huddled under a table, whose words are little more than guttural cries. The Brechtian interpretation, though, was arresting; she stared coolly into the camera, and sang her sorrow in a creepily catchy ditty that I found myself humming whilst doing the washing up later. Honestly, eeriest ear worm ever. In the corner is Artaud’s Ophelia; she wears her fathers glasses and pulls faces at an indifferent goldfish.

It’s what you might call an immersive experience, and several hours later the images are still echoing around in my head. The performances from Michelle Terry are absorbing and enchanting, and left me with so many questions. How did Shakespeare intend us to see Ophelia? Does it matter? Are there five truths on display here? Which performance is the most true? Why? Which Ophelia do I identify with the most? What does that say about me? What do the interpretations tell us about the directors?

I can’t recommend this enough. It’s free, so you’re not losing anything, and you can walk in, try it for five minutes and leave if you don’t like it. It’s running from 2pm to 8pm daily until Saturday 25th February (closed Sundays) at the Howard Assembly Rooms.

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