Review: Ophelia Doesn't Live Here Anymore ~ theatre notes

Monday, November 28, 2011

Review: Ophelia Doesn't Live Here Anymore

It's proverbial that there is a Hamlet for every century. As Jan Kott says, it's a play that absorbs its times. The Romantic era gave us a pale, introspective youth; the 20th century an animal trapped in the pitiless mechanisms of power. In the 21st century, the Prince of Denmark has become the random particle in a corrupted, dysfunctional and claustrophobic nuclear family.

Stripping the play of its larger politics reveals the powerlessness of its two women: Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, and his love object, Ophelia, are starkly shown to be male possessions, objects of exchange whose value rises and falls on their sexual conduct. Ophelia's own brother lectures her on keeping her virtue intact, as her virginity is a commodity by which her family honour and standing is measured. Her father is more explicit while ordering her to avoid Hamlet's wooing, when he tells her to "tender yourself more dearly". Gertrude's lubricity in marrying her husband's brother (and, unknowingly, his murderer) shortly after she is widowed is the ignition point of the whole play.

Female desire in Hamlet is dangerous, a threat to patriarchal authority. "Fear it, Ophelia, fear it!" Laertes says: but, as with all the other men in the play telling women how to manage their sexuality, it's his own fear that he expresses. It's the fear of this female desire, and most deeply, the fear of his own uncontrollable impulses, that leads to Hamlet's incestuous jealousy of his mother and his unconscionable cruelty towards Ophelia; and in the middle of it all, Ophelia, seeking only to be obedient to her father's and brother's will, is herself broken.

In Ophelia Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Daniel Schlusser and his collaborators have picked up this subtext of perilous sexuality to create a work that is part installation, part dance, part performance, part music. An opera, a work, in the broadest sense of its meaning. It's a co-production between Chamber Made Opera and Bell Shakespeare's developmental wing, Mind's Eye, which permits an experimental freedom difficult to find in the pragmatic contingencies of theatre.

Chamber Made's "living room operas" have been various explorations, projects such as Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey's Dwelling Structure and Margaret Cameron's Minotaur. The idea is that they are small-scale site-specific works that take place in private homes, and it has been an effective means of development. At least two of these projects have gone on to life elsewhere, with one, a collaboration with Rawcus, part of Malthouse Theatre's season next year.

Ophelia Doesn't Live Here Anymore takes place in a restored Victorian house in Armadale that is the sort of dwelling I normally only see inside while flipping through Home Beautiful in a doctor's surgery. We are in the land of the privileged. The contemporary planes of house - its huge, white kitchen, its carefully lit back garden and swimming pool - become stages for a haunting: Hamlet exists as a fragmentary memory, distorted glimpses of perverse, operatic passion within a domestic, naturalistic setting. This isn't an engagement with the play, so much as a free poetic riff on some of the darker moments of its sexual politics.

The toxic nuclear family is here reduced to three: Hamlet (Daniel Schlusser), Ophelia (Karen Sibbing) and Getrude (Lily Paskas). We are first led to a home theatre, in which jump cut close ups of Hamlet and Ophelia gaze silently and expressionlessly out on us, glancing beyond the camera at something we can't see. They do not seem to perceive each other.

The next scene is purely operatic: we peer like voyeurs through the French windows into the garden, where Ophelia, in a bridal dress, promenades like a ghost on the other side of the swimming pool, and Gertrude is suspended grotesquely from a tree in a complex net of knotted ropes (our first glimpse of shibari, the Japanese rope bondage that plays a role later). Hamlet, dressed in a grey business suit, enters the garden leading a choir of nine women clad in black.

This is the prologue: for the rest of the performance, we are seated in the huge kitchen. It is lined with white cupboards, and its only feature is a white marble bar that looks like a mortuary slab. It's hard to describe what happens: each scene slides oneirically into the next, jumping from the absurdly banal (Ophelia making a cup of tea, Hamlet knocking on the French windows dragging a huge bag of onions) to the absurdly surreal to the frankly operatic. Gradually the impeccable surfaces of the house are littered with rubbish - the bag of onions spills all over the floor - and spilt fluids, while Richard Grant's time-lapsed videos of growing plants invade the white spaces with an almost sinister sense of unstoppable life.

We see a fragmentary narrative of repressed erotic energies invading and exploding in this scene of idealised, aspirational domesticity. It's orchestrated by a sound design from Darrin Verhagen that veers from silence to harsh ambient noise to full-on vocal splendour. Hamlet is the neurotic, self-destructive dominator (I thought of Plath's line, "every woman adores a fascist"), while the two women closest to him destroy each other as they compete for his attention.

The scenes between Ophelia and Hamlet are glimpses of a partnership pregnant with unspoken recrimination and indefinable threat and paranoia. People knock of the front door (but who? We never find out). Hamlet hides a kitchen knife in his suit pocket. They both boil water for a cup of tea, which is serially remade throughout the performance until it is fatally drunk. Ophelia channels her frustrated energy into scientific experiments on plants; one of the highlights is her monologue on the uses of plants, which sounds like a collaged text taken from herbals.

Gertrude mostly hides in her bedroom. As we reach the climax, she emerges on hands and knees, her shins and thighs tied together by rope. Hamlet sighs impatiently and asks: "What's the matter, mother?" Then he tenderly ties her hands together behind her back and secures another rope around her waist and carries her back to the bedroom, in one of the more perverse moments I've seen in theatre. They reemerge, Gertrude in a long red dress with a huge head-dress of an animal skull, Hamlet in a long, white tulle petticoat, as a promenade of deathliness.

Ophelia's response to this betrayal is inconsolable grief (she turns on the vitamiser to hide the sound of her sobbing). She then poisons her mother-in-law, who theatrically collapses in the garden. Before that, however, Gertrude has strangled Ophelia in the kitchen sink. These moments of extremity emerge organically from the gaps within the quotidian, with the same kind of inexorability of seedlings forcing apart concrete paving.

Strange, enthralling, disturbing, often uncomfortably funny, Ophelia Doesn't Live Here Anymore rubs against its literal setting with subversive power. Even ordinary objects - kettles, vitamisers - become perilous, loosed from their usual moorings of meaning. I'm not sure I'd have been comfortable with such energies released in my own home; they're the kind of subconscious hauntings that stay with you.

Picture: Karen Sibbing as Ophelia. Photo: Daisy Noyes

Ophelia Doesn't Live Here Anymore, directed by Daniel Schlusser, composed by Darrin Verhagen. Sets and costumes by Marg Horwell, video by Richard Grant, choreography (shibari) Frances D'Ath. With Karen Sibbing, Daniel Schlusser and Lily Paskas. Chamber Made Opera and Bell Shakespeare, a house in Armadale, until November 29. Sold out.


Sian Prior said...

Great review. Watching this show was like excavating a compost bin. Pungent sticky cruel stinky worm-eaten humanity. And the set reminded me of Robin Boyd's idea of the 'cliffs of white cleanliness.'

Anonymous said...

I feel very fortunate to have seen this show during it's all too short season - exquisite visual theatre. Schlusser has assembled an exceptional group of collaborators and it really is Darrin Verhagen and Marg Horwell at their very best.

Anonymous said...

Jealous. I hope there's a re-mount some time.

darrin verhagen said...


In the mean time, here are the teaser videos we released in the lead up to the season..



Cameron Woodhead said...

I hope there's a re-mount too, if only to hear Darrin V's score again.