There was an old TV advert for The Guardian, which showed a skinhead running along a street and seeming to attack an older man carrying a briefcase. The older man tries to protect himself, but the skinhead grabs him and shoves him against a wall. As the camera pans back we see that the skinhead, far from being a threat, was running to save the man from falling masonry that would have crushed him. It's one of the great adverts, and shows in 30 seconds that the same actions mean completely different things depending on your perspective, and that the 'truth' is always elusive. No easy answers.
Katie Mitchell's video installation, Five Truths, which opens in the Howard Assembly Room next week, is a very different project, but the message is the same; that one scene (Ophelia's famous 'mad' scene from Hamlet) is open to radically different interpretations, depending on the perspective of the director, and the technical skill of the actor.
In Five Truths we meet a calm, composed Ophelia, sitting at a desk and studying her deceased father's pesonal belongings, as she half remembers songs from her childhood. She's contemplative and angry, and her suicide is a calm decisive act that she controls. On another screen we meet another Ophelia, with the same words to speak, but this time wholly lost in a frenzy of wild, surrealist thoughts and images. This Ophelia is not in control of her destiny, she doesn't know what she is doing or where she is, and she is being driven to her death.
Shakespeare's plays lend themselves to multiple interpretations; this is one of the reasons audiences will see them, and read them, again and again. These often aren't subtle changes, they can be radical and political, and tell us as much about the interpreter (actor, director) as they do about the character or the writer. And this is as it should be. Live performance is all about the decisions that work now, that reflect a contemporary society, which is itself ever changing. In five years time Mitchell could return to the project and make five more Ophelias (assuming she is lucky enough to have another collaborator of Michelle Terry's skill and sensitivity). In the meantime we can find our own preferred Ophelias, conceive new ones to join the ensemble, or use this installation to help us look anew at those things in our own lives which we think are fixed and permanent, but which we can change by shifting our perspective.
Dominic Gray, Projects Director
Katie Mitchell’s Five Truths will be at the Howard Assembly Room from Tuesday 14 – Saturday 25 February. The installation is free to the public and is open between 2.00pm and 8pm daily (closed Sunday).
Let us know what you think below - who is Ophelia? Can any interpretation be 'true?'
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