Set in a black box at the heart of the V&A’s theatre and performance department – away from the hubbub of the museum’s marble-lined hallways and beyond the stately dazzle of the jewellery gallery – Katie Mitchell’s extraordinary immersive video installation, Five Truths, sees the 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 bold blend of theatre and technology, in a museum renowned for celebrating the past, is striking, unsettling and mesmerising.
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.”