If the name “Victoria and Albert Museum” only conjures up images of classical statues and hordes of tourists admiring sumptuous dresses, trinkets and paintings from the past, prepare to be surprised this month; because if you venture away from the hubbub of marble-lined hallways and beyond the stately dazzle of the jewellery gallery, you’ll find something modern: acclaimed director Katie Mitchell’s extraordinary immersive video installation, Five Truths.
Set in a black box at the heart of the museum’s theatre and performance department, this innovative piece sees Olivier award-winning actress Michelle Terry play Ophelia in five different versions of the mad scene from Hamlet. Each film, split across two screens, is directed in the style of five masters of the stage – Stanislavski, Artaud, Brecht, Grotowski and Peter Brook – and, collectively, they are intended to get visitors thinking about what constitutes truth in performance. Played simultaneously on a ten-minute loop, this blend of theatre and technology is striking, unsettling and beautiful.
Five Truths was the brainchild of V&A curator Kate Bailey, who views it with me before we take advantage of some rare sunshine and move to the museum’s outdoor cafe to discuss its inception. Over a cup of tea, she explains that the idea of doing an interactive installation exploring the nature of directing and acting came to her while touring a multimedia exhibition inspired by the work of theatre designer Edward Gordon Craig. “And I’ve always done theatrical interpretations of subjects,” she adds. “It’s quite an obsession. Perhaps because I can’t think of anything worse than going on stage, I find it so interesting. And working within the V&A you become fascinated by process: how things are made and how they happen.”
In 2009, Bailey curated The Half, an exhibition of photographs by Simon Annand of actors preparing to go on stage. When I suggest that there’s a thematic link between that collection and Five Truths, which lays bare the choices an actor makes by sandwiching together different takes on the same character, she agrees. “I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re right. Annand completely captures that window of time when an actor loses themselves and becomes something else. It’s quite a scientific thing for him; and I’m fascinated by the biology of emotions. And, you know, if you read Stanislavski’s My Life in Art, you really do begin to understand the system in acting.”
Stanislavski had captured Bailey’s imagination during research for another exhibition. After realising that focusing solely on him wouldn’t be commercially viable for a tour, she seized upon the idea of presenting his as one of a chorus of voices connected by “their notion of truth in performance” and invited Katie Mitchell to direct the project. Her career-long advocacy of Stanislavski’s psychological realism and her knowledge of other Eastern European practitioners made Mitchell the “most natural choice” for Bailey; as did her experience of on-stage cinematography in productions such as Waves at The National. And when it came to Peter Brook, “she was brave enough to take on the style of a living director and everything that comes with that.”
Did Bailey ever worry that this directorial ventriloquising would stifle Mitchell’s own, highly distinctive voice? No, she replies firmly. “The whole thing is Katie; it’s her interpretation of everything. And for us, it was about giving her the freedom she and her team needed. It was important that she owned the final creation.” Early on, this included rejecting Aristotle from the list of practitioners. “That was great advice,” Bailey reveals. “We’d wanted a neutral environment without too many complications, so that it all came down to the purity of the performance. Now we could focus on the twentieth century rather than trying to do sandals and masks.”
Stripping away such distractions from Michelle Terry’s performance and choosing a well-known character such as Ophelia was an educational as well as artistic decision. It was important to the self-confessedly populist Bailey to produce something accessible to general V&A visitors, not just theatre enthusiasts and academics. “Because as a learning kit for, say, A-Level students, it’s absolutely brilliant,” she argues. “These directors were all catalysts for a particular genre and this kind of fusion of visual arts, theatre and cinematography really enables you to see their processes in action. To be honest, I can’t believe that nobody’s done it before.”
And it’s hugely effective. Mitchell has Ophelia smoking and packing away possessions with clinical precision, introducing the stresses of modern life and the visual language of mental illness in a way that resonates without taking away from the power of Shakespeare’s verse. To this end, she is helped by the intensity and subtlety of Terry’s performance across the five films. Whether baying in fear and pain in the brutal Grotowski segment or fixing the viewer with a look of almost playful inscrutability in the Brechtian moments, she’s riveting. She brings home the fact that a performance is a constantly evolving set of choices rather than a predetermined route. At any one time, she’s absolutely convincing and absolutely different – wherever you look.
Five Truths is also a powerful interrogation of Ophelia as an idealised, sentimentalised and aestheticised figure; beatified in death, with her hair fanning outwards like a halo in the peaceful waters of Millet’s painting. Mitchell’s version of Ophelia as directed with the mysticism of Brook draws to a close with a dream-like evocation of this famous image – while, opposite, the Grotowski scene ends with the dead girl floating face down in blackness with her dress hitched up around her thighs. There’s no painter’s gloss to this drowning; only a body to be fished out of a river. It’s a thought-provoking and audacious juxtaposition for a museum birthed in the pre-Raphaelite era.
Ironically, Grotowski disliked film; for him, only the living space of the theatre had the immediacy necessary for truth-telling. It’s a shame he never got to see this exhibition, which unites cinema and stage in a repeating collision of beauty and brutality. Thanks to skilful editing by Leo Warner of 59 Productions, Vicki Mortimer’s simple yet haunting design and, above all, Terry’s versatility and Mitchell’s vision, Five Truths presents an utterly compelling experience of creativity in action. Shortly before we wrap up the interview, Bailey expresses a belief that “museums should inspire people and help them to look at things differently.” With this installation, she and the V&A have succeeded.
First published by Exeunt Magazine