H(2)O @ New Schoolhouse Gallery, York, 2015Adaptation

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H(2)O – Teatr Strefa Otwarta of Wroclaw, York International Shakespeare Festival, Performed and devised by Anna Rakowska and Piotr Misztela, New Schoolhouse Gallery, York. 11 May 2015

Reviewed by Sarah Olive (University of York)

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17.13pm 59 minutes and counting.

I have just walked across town from H(2)O – a devised production based on Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship in Shakespeare’s play – straight into the Gillygate pub. In an hour and a quarter’s time, Shakespeare in his Cups will play here. I’ve ordered a (nominally Scandinavian) Kraken and diet coke. The timing’s unusual for me (if not the drink). But I am glad of the drink. I’m a little shakey, sick-feeling and hotter under my collar than I should feel after an hour in a large, bare, concrete-floored, Victorian schoolroom.

I’m halfway through my drink and scared that I’ll forget the things I thought of to say in this review as I strode under the city walls. One is that I have taught my students Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis for three years running now; taught them that she wanted to engage her audiences viscerally, rather than cognitively. But I had never really understood felt, til today, what it was to react viscerally to a piece of theatre. It might have helped today that some of the lines in H(2)O were spoken in Polish, which I don’t understand. It might have helped me that I know next to nothing about Polish traditions of Shakespeare or about physical theatre, both of which must have been drawn on here. I’m fairly stumped when I ask myself what H(2)O meant, although I have half-formed thoughts and questions about the blurring of the figures of Hamlet and Polonius.

I have much more fully formed feelings: my jaw hasn’t quite unclenched yet after the performance, my shoulders feel as though they’re grazing my earlobes. I feel much more tense than I envisaged after a day spent in lurking in a city café, writing an upcoming research methods talk, and seeing theatre. I feel a little bit disgusted: at Hamlet for leading us literally up the garden path in Peasholme Green at the start of the show; for making me think *drops butter knife inside knee-high boot, retrieves knife from boot, ponders glib and self-indulgent statement about the perils of writing to self-imposed tight deadlines*, no, making me feel, that he was charming; for repeatedly striking Ophelia (albeit in a clearly stylised stage violence); for making me say I loved him in Polish, as part of the audience interaction, thus provoking Ophelia’s wrath, directed at me. I feel disgusted at myself for being entranced by the way Ophelia’s long, burnished hair so photogenically flew through the air each time she was slapped, each time Hamlet rolled her neck while manipulating her, puppet-like, into action; for not feeling as repelled by her the times she hit him. I feel complicit in her character’s abuse.

I feel guilty; for not being able to help when she sought to find her father; for noticing that her black body-stocking rode up between her buttocks; for enjoying having her eyes, her face, fixed intently on mine as she spoke passionate, incomprehensible lines to me, squeezed on a bench between myself and another female audience member; on a more cerebral level, for not asking Hamlet a question when given the opportunity by Ophelia, in a shout-out to the audience, (and culpable for possibly thereby shortening the show). I hope the other audience members feel the same about that – they were useless too.

I am glad that I stuck to the ‘no’ or ‘niet’ that I gave when the audience was asked by Ophelia whether she and Hamlet should get together; that I refused to continue dipping my fingers into the glass of water I had been given and flinging droplets onto Ophelia as other audience members did – albeit urged on by him, after she protested that the water was causing her to capsize and pleading with him/us to cease; that I may go to Lodz in Summer because I want to hear more of the country’s beautiful, sensual language.

I remember worrying a lot during the 55 minutes for which the show ran (somewhere between thinking and feeling?) I worried about the actors having to fall hard on the cement floor repeatedly – there were real bruises on Ophelia’s legs. I worried that Hamlet might fall from one of the high, white plinths he had climbed on to impose himself over us and his lover. I worried about whether audience members might have experienced physical abuse and how they would feel; about what would happen if children attended and how they would feel; about what my colleague and best friend who works on gender and violence would think of my taste in theatre: would she view the production as celebrating and commodifying violence in relationships? Or commend it for presenting a barely-vicarious experience of what it is like to watch two humans hurt each other again, and again, til the room rings with thuds and screams, that would raise awareness?

People are trickling into the pub for the festival’s next offering. And a theatre-going dog, apparently. I’m ordering another drink. I’m thinking about going back to see H(2)O tonight. The programme promises it will be different on each of the occasions it’s performed. I wonder whether it will feel the same?

18.16pm I’m 3 minutes over an hour…

20.45pm The second drink never arrived. I have just emerged from the second performance of H(2)O today. I am glad I returned, although it didn’t feel the same. There were differences in the audience interactions; a larger and more diverse crowd (including a boy who seemed engrossed rather than traumatised); much more laughter; additional, spontaneous props; and I trusted that the actors would not hurt or embarrass me. The overall similarities were such that I no longer felt so unsure of or exposed by the action. I have finally and tangibly learnt why the difference between the terms ‘performance’ and ‘production’ matters. I have changed my mind for the better about improvised drama, particularly about improvised Hamlets. We have become culturally anaesthetised to Hamlet, to the cruelty it contains; we know too well what to expect and when. Improvised, highly physical, bilingual work such as H(2)O successfully avoids Shakespeare’s lines becoming mere words, words, words that signify something, or nothing, and made them words that do.

Author: SarahOlive

Sarah Olive is a Senior Lecturer in English in Education at the University of York. She also supervises MA students at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, having previously led the Shakespeare and Pedagogy module there. Her research interests include Shakespeare’s afterlives, particularly in popular culture and education. Follow her on Twitter @DrSarahOlive.
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