The Origins of Curtain’d Sleep

When Curtain’d Sleep first came to life in late 2015 it marked a significant departure from our previous work. The project was to be the first time we’d step outside the relative safety of a theatre space by mounting an immersive / site-specific production – a challenge both exhilarating and nerve-wracking in equal measure.

Curtain’d Sleep started as a simple question – why does Shakespeare’s Ophelia die offstage?

We’d partially explored this ponderance a couple of years before in a devised piece called The Weeping Brook, created by myself and fellow co-artistic director Katharine alongside fellow course mates at University. The piece was motivated by a dissatisfaction amongst our group with how much Ophelia is ignored throughout Hamlet by the male characters and perhaps, by extension, Shakespeare himself. Hamlet, Laertes and Claudius all display passionate reactions to her madness and subsequent death, but these come far too late to save her from her tragic fate. Looking back now The Weeping Brook had all the hallmarks of an Entita show today – featuring moments of heightened physical theatre weaved amongst Shakespeare text and set to a compelling soundtrack. Interestingly The Weeping Brook was also the inspiration for our celebrated production Method in Madness, but that’s a story for another blog post!

The question of why Ophelia’s death is written as offstage action remained a mystery and led us to ponder other Shakespearean characters who do not appear in front of an audience in their final moments. We quickly thought of Lady Macbeth, another iconic female character ushered into the wings to die. The parallels between the two were immediately clear – the title characters in their respective plays, both men, die at the climax of their narratives, whilst their own deaths are instead reported by others. Suddenly we had two questions to explore: why does Ophelia die offstage? And why does Lady Macbeth too?

Looking deeper into these two compelling characters we were fascinated by the contrasting ways their deaths are announced to the audience. Ophelia is given a highly poetic and detailed account, delivered by Gertrude in Act 4 Scene 7 of Hamlet. Painted as the picture of innocence, decorated with flowers and described as ‘mermaid-like’ her death appears to be a beautiful accident. But this only sparked further questions for us: perhaps it wasn’t an accident and Gertrude couldn’t bring herself to recount the reality?  The ‘fiendish Queen’ Lady Macbeth is, by contrast, offered just a single line ‘The Queen my Lord is dead’ in Act 5 Scene 5 of Macbeth. Further detail of her death is not revealed until the play’s epilogue when it is suggested her taking off was by her own ‘self and violent hands.’ We were left bemused how such an enigmatic and powerful character could be killed off in such a brief and dismissive manner. And why such a beautiful, visually-rich death was described and not shown! Suffice to say creative sparks were quickly flying and continued to do so in the rehearsal room.

This idea may not have taken an immersive form had we not been lucky enough to be commissioned by Basic Space Festival to present Curtain’d Sleep as part of their first programme of work. The title itself was taken from a passage in Macbeth and described beautifully to us a character’s death occuring in the wings of a play, hidden behind the curtain.

Now o’er the one halfworld
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain’d sleep
Macbeth, Act 2 Scene 1

We were delighted to be invited back by Basic Space Festival to open their second festival programme in March 2017, but we felt that Curtain’d Sleep also had a life to be lived outside of Peckham and the beautifully derelict house in which it has been solely staged in to date. So it is with much excitement that we will be back in the rehearsal room over the coming months to research and develop an alternative studio version of the production for future touring. We are delighted that this R&D will be supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.

The challenge of converting Curtain’d Sleep from an immersive play into a studio staging will be documented on this new blog and we hope you will join us on this journey!

Written by Jamie, Co-Artistic Director.

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