In a blacked-out box within the Theatre & Performance section of the Victoria and Albert Museum sits Katie Mitchell’s installation piece, Five Truths. The floor glimmers with shiny blackness, the walls are a dull matte black, and a series of projections of various shapes and sizes are playing the five films that make up the installation, both enticing and repelling you within the space. The work is a remarkably simple idea that I’m surprised no director has taken the time to explore and capture until now. To put it simply, Five Truths sees Mitchell exploring the various methods of some of the most respected and polar-opposite theatre directors with one of Shakespeare’s most curious characters, Ophelia from Hamlet.
The directors explored within the films are Stanislavski, Artaud, Brecht, Grotowski and Brook, each renowned for their directing styles within theatre, ranging from the character-focused Stanislavski, to the alienating of Brecht and the meditative genius of Brook. The films depict the increasing madness of Ophelia after discovering her father has been killed by her lover, which ultimately leads to her tragic drowning. Five Truths offers its spectators the chance to witness the styles of each of the directors through the notion of ‘truth’, projected in films directed by Mitchell and performed by the Olivier award-winning actress Michelle Terry.
As an installation piece, it is a phenomenally bold and adventurous piece of art, that borders on performance art, theatre and moving paintings. Five Truths is deeply captivating, with Terry portraying five different versions of Ophelia split across ten projected screens. It is alluring and immersive, drawing you repeatedly into her torment. Mitchell contemporarises Ophelia, so that Terry is seen smoking, carrying a mobile and handling modern-day bank notes, yet this directional choice doesn’t take away from the poetic language within the scene.
What strikes you most about Five Truths is its beauty. The videos are masterfully edited by Leo Warner of 59 Productions, and include some of Mitchell’s previous collaborators such as Gareth Fry (sound), Paule Constable (lighting), Vicki Mortimer (design) and Paul Clark (composer). The outcome is mesmerising, and in the case of the more ‘absurd’ theories of direction with Artuad and Grotowski, the videos are deeply chilling.
During one, Terry is crouched on the floor, desperately clinging to a table and rocking as if an earthquake strikes her body – she screams, a long harrowing scream that sickens your stomach. This, of course, is Grotowski, the Polish director whose work strips back the nature of performance and theatre to its visceral senses (see his Towards A Poor Theatre for more). Simultaneously, we see Terry’s Ophelia sing “He is dead, he is dead and gone / at his head green grass turf, at his feet a stone” on another wall, staring into the camera, and, in true Brechtian style, reminding us that its all a performance – she sinks into the water, a knowing smile on her face, and we know that it’s all an act. The cacophony of sounds and visuals become disorientating as Ophelia sings her madness, and the visuals repeatedly show Terry clutching flowers, and sinking into the waters.
Whilst at times distressing, there is a real beauty within Mitchell’s portrayal. Her version of Ophelia directed by Peter Brook (the only living director chosen for the installation) sees the work more as a moving image or painting, especially in the closing moments, when Millais’s painting Ophelia seems an obvious inspiration. There are a number of subtleties within the work too, such as Stanislavski’s direction where there is such a stillness to Terry that her death seems harmless, compared with the face down dramatic ending in Grotowski’s version, or the murky waters and fish-eyed view of Ophelia as directed by Artaud.
Five Truths transcends being a piece of performance art; it is a work of documentary and and explores the various depictions and methodologies of Europe’s finest theatre directors. It offers a glimpse into these styles with a tender and at times breathtaking beauty. At first a curious installation, it becomes informative, educational and immersive. Having witnessed several of Mitchell’s theatrical pieces before, she proves once again that her attention to detail, her intensity and creativity in exploring theatre is unmatched in today’s theatrical field.
The Victoria and Albert Museum might not seem like the likeliest of places to find challenging new performance work, but under the curatorship of Kate Bailey, the Theatre Collection looks like it is pushing back the layers of dust and offering a real treat for those willing to immerse themselves.
Five Truths is showing at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 29th August. It is FREE. For more information see the V&A website here.