Directed by Maria Kjærgaard-Sunesen for The Royal Danish Theatre at The Royal Danish Playhouse. 23 May 2014.
Lacquer red doors opening smoothly and silently at the slightest touch, black floors polished to a dull gleam reflect hazy shadows back up at us, warm, golden lightbulbs framing square mirrors bathe the scene in a glow like early autumn. There was something consciously designed and visually delicious about the entire experience. And that was just the toilets.
On the grey waterfront walkway that is Ophelia Beach, Skuespilhuset (The Royal Danish Playhouse) lies languidly in a pre-emptive summer heat that has settled over Copenhagen. A modern piece of architecture that with its brass front, dark brown bricks and huge glass façade echoes the colour scheme of the old shipyard and hulking storage-houses, it faces its sister – the equally striking Opera House – across the broad waterway near the Kvæsthus Bridge. Though located at some distance from the busy beating heart of the Danish capital, Skuespilhuset has clearly established itself as a major cultural institution, surrounded at all times by the hip student segment sipping cheap wine and latte in the sun and the artistic tendencies and equally artistic make-up of the cultured elderly, scuttling out of the light rain. We sipped chilled cava and felt terribly important and knowledgeable.
All of us, hat-wearers and skinny-jeans clad alike, settled in the dark of Store Scene (Large Stage) for Tigerhjerte svøbt i kvindehud (Tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide), the Royal Theatre of Copenhagen’s contribution to the widespread 450 birth/deathday celebrations so characterstic of this year. At 1hr 5mins and no interval Tigerhjerte is a true tour de force, and I cannot praise the performances of Kirsten Olesen, Signe Egholm, Helle Fagralid, and Danica Curcic highly enough.
The lights went down, a single lightbulb hovered over the proscenium stage, and Ophelia came running out of the dark, screaming her joy over Hamlet’s love letter, and reading it with breathless enthusiasm, while in the background a chorus of three women intoned a dirge accompanied by accordion. The four actresses were all identically dressed in ballooning black skirts, black skin-tight shirts, white detachable cravats, and white silk knickers – their lips were bright red, their faces white, their long hair hanging in thick braids down their backs, and their eyes dark as the empty sockets of the multitude skulls they scattered all over the stage as the action progressed.
The stage itself deserves mentioning; built to move, it resembled at times a staircase, a trench, a raised platform, a barren flatness. As Richard wooed Anne she threw skulls with curses at him from below. As Hamlet strummed away on a small guitar, Richard watched with apparent scorn from on high. As the ever-tighter dark spiral of action reached its peak with Desdemona’s murder (strangled with her own braid), the stage embodied the madness of the moment, as it heaved and shifted behind the three silent figures standing over a single prone body.
Not unlike the RSC’s A Tender Thing, Tigerhjerte comprises several Shakespearean bits and pieces – most prominently Richard III, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Othello, 3 Henry VI, Anthony and Cleopatra, and Much Ado About Nothing – and made me shamefully aware of how fun it can be to spot the quote. Looking back, I did miss the undefeated Rosaline in the mix, but there is no accounting for personal taste, and distracted by the four actresses pulling their skirts over their heads and letting their high black stockings and white silk knickers convey the essentials of Benedick’s speech in Much Ado 2.3 ‘One (wo)man is fair, yet I am well’, I simply forgot to miss anything.
Unlike A Tender Thing, Tigerhjerte has little to no pretensions of coherent storyline – the play grows increasingly fragmented and disjointed, ending with the four actresses sharing the famously melancholy prince’s defeatist monologue on the futility of it all, concluding: ‘And lose the name of action.’ (3.1)
Not that action was at all lacking in the performance. The actresses, slithering agilely between roles both male and female, kept an impressively high pace throughout, which further accentuated the increasing feeling of fragmentation. Central to the sense that what was played out was still somehow a coherent whole, certain lines were picked up by different characters and echoed across the scenes, so that Hamlet’s lament for his late father became interwoven with Lady Anne’s sorrow over her dead husband, and Richard’s wooing over the coffin became the play watched by Hamlet and Ophelia. A brilliant moment resulted: Richard asks ‘was ever woman in this humour woo’d?’ (1.3) and Hamlet, hand raised high like an over-eager schoolboy, shouts out with childish glee: ‘My mum was!’ I LOL’d. My fellow stoic Danes did not. Theatre is serious business.
Considering that this play was dedicated to Shakespeare’s strong female characters, I wondered at the decision to play out Desdemona’s murder and put Richard III and Hamlet, two characters made for centre-stage and spotlight, on stage. Surely they would dominate the space? I admit to some prejudice on this account; Lady Anne never appeared to me more than a prop to show off Richard’s deviousness, and Ophelia always seemed stronger in her madness than in her well-bred and obedient sanity. Well, I was proven wrong – this Ophelia lifted up her skirts, nodded that, yes, breeding sinners was exactly what she wanted to do, and brought an almost helpless Hamlet to beg her, with less and less conviction, ‘Gå i kloster’ (‘To a nunnery go’), a prayer that lost both conviction and words in its repetition, becoming a pleading ‘Gå væk’ (‘Go away’) until the words were swallowed up altogether in a 5 minute long French kiss. Well done, Ophelia!
To sum up: visually striking, immensely well played, supported by solid stage-craft, and with a healthy sense of irony and humour which only falters slightly towards the end. Highly recommended.