Antigoni Spanou is bringing her solo show, Ophelia Rewound, to the Camden Fringe from 22-25 August at Camden People’s Theatre (which celebrates its 25th birthday this year).
I asked Antigoni to tell me a bit more about the show and herself as a performer.
Ophelia is one of the most complex female characters in the Shakespeare canon. What inspired you to use her character for your new solo piece?
I think for me it was a case of a happy accident, or to be more precise, an unhappy accident.
In 2009 a colleague of mine at the time, Flávio Rabelo, who is an amazing performance artist, invited me to participate as Ophelia in a presentation of his piece inspired by Hamlet from Muller’s Hamletmachine. In that performance Ophelia was a silent, faceless version of herself and by the end of it, I felt a very strong connection to the character and a plethora of questions arising. Who is Ophelia? Do we ever know who she really is? Why is it that mostly it’s other characters who speak of her or for her? Is the voice that comes out of her mouth during the madness scene, her true voice? Is her death a suicide or an accident?
The questions were too many, the connection that I had felt with Flávio’s Hamlet was too strong; I just couldn’t let her go. I wanted to give her her own agency. Myself and Flávio over the next 2 years or so, kept exploring that connection between the two characters by sending each other stimuli and materials to inspire/provoke one another.
And what happened next in my life, just cemented that route. I suffered from clinical depression and came very close to suicide. Through my personal struggle of trying to get better, I just couldn’t put my Ophelia out of my mind; life was imitating art for me, and the need for art was giving me a purpose during those dark days. The parallels and the similarities were too many and I now had even more questions.
There have been many stereotypes around women and mental health over the years, around weakness, hysteria, and stigma. How does Ophelia Rewound address and challenge this?
Yes, that is true. I always found it interesting how women who suffer with mental health are portrayed in theatre, literature and in the arts in general, and what happens to their story. And what makes it even more fascinating is when you start comparing with how men are portrayed.
For example, Victor Frankenstein is relentless in his mission to reanimate the dead; a mad yet ingenious figure that no one dares to obstruct. And yet the first Mrs Rochester, Bertha, is a mere ghost in Jane Eyre. She only comes out at night, escaping her prison, to torment Jane and ultimately commits suicide amongst the flames that she sets.
And even though Hamlet speaks to his father’s ghost and is feared to be mad, he is free to roam and be part of the palace life. It is only with Ophelia that the other characters see a problem; she does not know what she is saying, she is to be pitied, and then she disappears “to muddy death”.
There seems to be a suggestion that madness in men is somehow a result of an immense talent too wild to tame, whilst in women the link has to do with genetics or “frailty”. I think it was this that I wanted to address; I wanted to take charge of her story. I wanted to hear about Ophelia from Ophelia.
What Ophelia Rewound set to do was to reverse this narrative, literally and metaphorically. During the performance you never hear Hamlet’s name, and that was a conscious choice. This wasn’t done because I’m wearing a “I hate men” badge; far from it. I chose to do that because we simply don’t need any more information on Hamlet. We heard everything he had to say.
This story is about Ophelia; what she feels, what she thinks, what she needs. But more importantly this story starts at the end and finds a new beginning. I’ve chosen to reverse the story, starting with her attempted suicide only to lead my Ophelia to a moment of realisation, of self-discovery.
In Ophelia Rewound, my Ophelia finds her voice and gets a happy beginning, one that doesn’t include Hamlet. Furthermore I personally wanted to give a reasoning behind her madness. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet she is heartbroken, abandoned and next time we see her she is completely mad. For me there were many steps missing in between. And that is where I found the correlation with my own personal story; a woman who is heartbroken and slowly falls into depression, that ultimately gets mistaken for madness.
There are autobiographical elements to the piece, which you perform on your own. Have you found this empowering, to share some of your own experiences, or were there challenges in incorporating your personal story?
I think that whenever you create autobiographical work, challenges are bound to follow.
As the tale that I wanted to express stemmed from a place of hurt and ache, there was the danger for myself as a person to get (re)lost inside those painful memories and the consequences that that would entail. And then there was the challenge as a theatre-maker that by making the story too personal, I wouldn’t allow the audience to “enter” and join in the journey.
Having said that though, what has been empowering was overcoming these challenges. Being able to take my own personal narrative and adapt it so it still bears real elements and rings true to the audience, but then also opening it up (by interweaving it with Ophelia’s narrative), and therefore making it more universal and recognisable and as a result more relatable to anyone that sees it.
How did Ophelia Rewound take shape? How have you benefitted from the support of those around you, including professional organisations?
So the journey has been long to say the least. As I mentioned this project started with an invitation in Brazil, in 2009. In the beginning it existed as a series of actions the nature of which were performance-art based. The research was always ongoing but for the next 2 years the “long night” set in, by which I mean my depression. But even during this time the search for Ophelia was ever-present as I took part in a theatre scratch competition in Athens, Greece with a highly theatrical version of the piece that even I wouldn’t recognise today.
Allowing myself the time to heal and trying to regain my confidence as a person and as an artist was mainly the reason why I kept pushing the project to the back of my mind for the next 6 years. But by 2017 the itch had become too great to not scratch anymore. I reached out to an incredible artist called Peader Kirk for guidance. I was lucky enough to have had him as a tutor when I was a student, and even luckier to have him as a mentor with this project.
At this point I really felt the need to reach out to the audience directly so Ophelia Rewound started making its first interactive steps and I decided to do a sharing of it in the ever-embracing environment of the Lighthouse event held by The Lab Collective. It was that very night and through feeling the support and encouragement of fellow artists and audience members, that I decided to go further.
I then performed a scratch version of it at the Bike Shed in Exeter in June 2017 which allowed me to get more feedback and test uncharted waters. And the next step in the saga was what gave birth to what Ophelia Rewound is today. I applied for an R&D period at Bathway Theatre Network (University of Greenwich) which was what I truly needed at that point; support, time and space. And whilst I was there, one day I asked if I could have a projector. And that simple request set in motion my collaboration with the talented Joseph Thorpe (one of the artistic directors of The Lab Collective).
Which brings us to today; Ophelia Rewound being an interactive, autobiographical piece that uses intricate projection-mapping to say things regarding mental health that words can’t express. I honestly have no words to describe how grateful I am to have (had) such a supporting network of friends and colleagues around me.
All of the organisations and people that I mentioned above, including other ever-present saviours, I owe so much to and one thing I know for sure; I wouldn’t be where I am today without them and Ophelia Rewound would simply not exist. So to say that I benefited or that I am thankful, is a huge understatement.
Does the piece address current political concerns around the underfunding of mental health support? Do you feel that anything is improving?
It doesn’t; but not because I don’t believe this is an important issue. The simple reason why is because this piece originated from a very personal place for me and it centres around that crucial moment in time when you reach out for help from that dark place. It addresses the stigma around mental health that is still alive today. It deals with being able to recognise the signs in someone who’s clearly suffering and offering your hand. It focuses on the fact that there is a way out.
I do believe that the underfunding of mental health is a real and huge concern and I myself have experienced being told to be put on a waiting list when I objectively needed immediate help. So there is definitely a political piece there; it’s just that I felt I had something else to say, and if I tried to say both at the same time, I wouldn’t do either justice.
I applaud you for dealing head-on with themes relating to depression and suicide in an “intimate, emotive and interactive” way. What might an audience coming along experience during the show?
The way I would describe it is like an emotional roller coaster; it takes you to the core of things which in this case is our emotions. We learn to control, suppress, push back, not talk about our feelings and that is where the problem starts.
The audience will experience rawness, truth, sadness but also laughter, reality and the sense of coming together. Every single flavour. And there is no pressure. I am extending an invitation for real interaction but the audience always has a choice. At the end of the day, it’s just us, a small group of people sharing our dreams and our fears. Oh…and there’s tea!
Tell me some more about The Lab Collective, and its past and future work. What’s next after Ophelia Rewound?
The Lab Collective is a group of creatives that all met during our studies at Rose Bruford. The work that we create is interactive, visceral live experiences that tread the line between theatre, game and installation. We strive to empower the audience to collaborate in our performances and we have worked in a variety of traditional and non-traditional performance spaces, exploring and playing across disciplines to generate an innovative theatrical experience.
Our work consists of three strands; interactive installations (like Between Us), socially relevant performance which explores current social questions (like Incoming/Exodus), and large scale immersive performance for festivals and alternative sites (like the work that we do at BoomTown Festival).
Much of our work is socially and politically engaged (like The Candidate) and asks questions about issues which impact us all, giving a voice to unheard stories – told not only by our performers – but by the audience themselves.
In October The Lab Collective will be presenting Vector (an interactive experience, which uses elements of performance, game and integrated technology to open up dialogue and shed light on the ethics that society faces when using animals as part of medical research) at Oxford’s Festival of Ideas.
In that same month we will also be launching our series of workshops for interactive performers and theatre-makers as we are committed in sharing our practice and creating connections and collaborations with artists.We are also hoping to book some time away as a group soon. We are keen to get away from the busy streets of London for a bit as we are looking into developing a new performance in the next 3 months.
Regarding Ophelia Rewound‘s future (which is my first full venture as a solo artist even though I’m collaborating with Joseph Thorpe), that is unclear at the moment; I can only see as far as The Camden Fringe! But what I am certain of, is that it will have a future.
What’s the best thing about the Camden Fringe, and the Camden People’s Theatre in particular?
Camden Fringe went from feeling like a community of artists to feeling like a family in a heartbeat. Just the sheer support that we’ve been offered by Michelle Flower and Zena Barrie, and also Natalie Beech, is unmeasurable.
Every question, every worry, every email; the response is immediate and reassuring. There is a real sense of solidarity with the other artists and the level of professionalism and quality of work is incredible.
I believe that for someone like me, an emerging artist who has never done the Edinburgh Fringe (as it used to scare me to my core) this experience right now, this festival baptism of fire, is just what I need to gain the confidence, center myself as a creative and take this beautiful platform and leap into the unknown with no fear.
Camden People’s Theatre is a dream come true for me. It’s one of those venues that you dream about performing in it since you are a drama student. In fact I think I have spent pretty much most of my income throughout the years watching shows at CPT.
It’s such an inclusive, open and supporting venue that puts on such innovative and ground-breaking work, and I am beyond happy to be presenting Ophelia Rewound there. All of the team at CPT has been so helpful and I can’t wait to get started. I do hope that this will be “the beginning of a beautiful friendship”!
Finally, what’s been your biggest joy and your biggest frustration as a solo creative?
This is a loaded question! I guess if I had to pin it down to one thing, I would say that my biggest joy – or if I may rename it – my biggest relief is that I don’t have to explain myself.
It’s very convoluted in my head and also there are multiple voices who sometimes speak different languages, so my train of thought is very difficult to follow. I also find it very stressful to express myself when put on the spot. I prefer to go away, think, think again, write it down, erase it, write it again and by the end I will still not be happy with it (which I guess has to do with my scientific background). So being able to just run with something without taking 20 min to explain how in the hell my brain got to that point, is indeed a relief.
The biggest frustration as a solo creative is hitting that wall and not being able to bounce off of someone else in order to overcome it. Having said that though I consider myself extremely lucky to be surrounded by a community of people (friends, family, colleagues) who by now can read the panic and frustration signs a mile away and always come to my rescue.
My thanks to Antigoni for her thoughtful responses to my questions!
Ophelia Rewound tickets are available at https://www.cptheatre.co.uk/production/ophelia-rewound/.