The Shakespeare Industry - including this year's anniversary
celebrations - generally attempts to sell Shakespeare as the Establishment. The great moral thinker - as he was presented during the early campaigns to establish a British National Theatre - the bard beyond compare, the educator who taught the Englishman the little theatre that he knew, the bloke who appears on currency and stamps, balding, innocuous and wearing a cheeky ruff: these stereotypes linger. The secret Catholic, the collaborator, the bawdy womaniser, the propagandist, on the other hand, are shoved into the shadows. Unlike the monarchy, Shakespeare doesn't even get insulted on Facebook.
For critics (some but not all), the most interesting interpretations of Shakespeare are those which challenge the accepted virtues of The Stratford Bard. Catherine Love's fascinating review of Ophelia Zimmer - suggests not only that it is better to read a review than see this show (much mention is made of deliberate tedium) but that shifting the focus to Hamlet's sometime beloved exposes how, In Hamlet, Shakespeare presents a self-indulgent misogynist as tormented hero. Whether this makes Katie Mitchell's highly collaborative piece a 'feminist' Hamlet is moot - although Love does suggest that the dull horror of Ophelia's life makes her a victim of patriarchal constraint. It's the familiarity with Hamlet that allows Mitchell to run interference on the scopic regime of contemporary theatre culture.
Having slipped in a fancy phrase, let me explain. This week's Vile obsession concerns the manner in which the very seeing of an object is determined by cultural assumptions. It's a variation on that stoner classic: what if the green I see is actually red for you, man? The culture which I inhabit has taught me to see things in particular ways (moderated by experience and my own cussedness, of course). When Mitchell draws the attention away from the over-educated Hamlet towards Ophelia, Shakespeare's play, and its influence, is repositioned.
Like when Dominic Hill directed Hamlet as an alcoholic domestic dispute (the Dane hid under tables, wandered about in his shreddies while Ophelia's dad was creepy and stupid), Ophelia Zimmer asks questions about the content of the classic script. When she compares Hamlet to Ian Curtis from Joy Division, Love challenges the wider, easy acceptance of Hamlet as a hero who dithers a bit. Suddenly, he is recognised as selfish, careless and self-indulgent. Ophelia's drowning then becomes a metaphor for the noxious environment's impact on her life.
The possibility of exploring themes in a familiar script is what
justifies the Shakespeare Industry. A shared knowledge of the source material encourages discussion. It's not that Shakespeare has better plots or characters or structure than other, lesser-known playwrights. It's that his plays (in some cases) have an immediate recognition that permits pieces like Ophelia Zimmer, which opens up a critique of gender roles both within the play and into wider society.
Catherine Love's review is also a strong argument for the primacy of the critic. Her article is available on-line, for free, and moves forward the discussion of the big ideas. Anyone wanting to see Ophelia Zimmer outside of London will be forking out at least £100, and while there is immense value in the live experience, getting a reasoned and detailed commentary for free is superb. Without the reviews, the play would pass away with the final performance, and the serious themes that (I presume) inspired the interpretation would lose the explorations of the work.
As for a consumer guide: after reading Love's analysis, I feel no need to see the play. Since no-one reads the last paragraph, I'll say that's a mark of brilliant criticism. Mind you, making me want to see a play would be another mark of brilliant criticism.