Sunday 11 November 2018

Ophelia Thinks Harder - Theatre Review

What: Ophelia Thinks Harder
When: 9 - 24 November 2018
Where: Bluestone Church Arts Space
Written by: Jean Betts
Direction and sound by: Belinda Campbell
Performed by: Sam Anderson, Sarah Clarke, Lansy Feng, Ruby Lauret, Aimee Marich, Artemis Munoz, Jennifer Piper, Leigh Scully and Matt Tester
Set by: Sarah Clarke and Jennifer Piper
Costumes by: Georgina Hanley
Lighting by Jennifer Piper
Stage Managed by: Valerie Dragojevic

Jennifer Piper

As we start to question and dismantle the white patriarchal canon - particularly the assumption that Shakespeare is timeless and universal - Ophelia is getting a bit of a work out on modern stages. Earlier this year in the Melbourne Fringe Festival we saw Ophelia/Machine, earlier in the year La Mama had Enter Ophelia, and in 2011 Chamber Made Opera produced Ophelia Doesn't Live Here Anymore just to name a few. The newest (and probably not the last) addition to this catalogue in Melbourne is the Wit Incorporated production of Ophelia Thinks Harder playing at the Bluestone Church Arts Space in Footscray.

Ophelia (from Shakespeare's Hamlet) has become something of an feminist icon. Why? On the surface she is possibly the least effective of the Bard's heroine's. She gets pushed around by her father and brother, spurned by her lover, goes mad and then kills herself. Not the best resume I have ever seen...

It is precisely these circumstances and her complete disempowerment in the Danish court which makes us take up arms on Ophelia's behalf. Her velvet bondage has become a metaphor for the cruelty, carelessness, and suppression which has been applied systemically to women for at least a millenium. We can't save ourselves but maybe we can save the Ophelias yet to be born.

In 1995 Betts took up the mantle and wrote Ophelia Thinks Harder. Using a two act structure, Betts rewrites Shakespeare's story (which, incidentally, he rewrote from an oft repeated ancient tale based on the idea as the hero as a fool although more directly linked to the play Ur-hamlet). Instead of the play focusing on Hamlet, Betts tells Ophelia's side of the story, gives Ophelia some of Hamlet's lines, and has created a comedy rather than a tragedy. I have to say I experienced a moment of incredible revelation hearing the 'to be, or not to be' speech come out of Ophelia's mouth!

I say Ophelia Thinks Harder is a comedy, but I also admit Wit Incorporated really set themselves a hard task with this play because it is not especially well written for this genre. Bett's has created a play which is full of historical patriarchal suppressions and outrageous feminist expositions which make it really hard to keep the work fast and funny which is what comedy needs to keep the audience laughing and on side.

Campbell is still an emerging director and it is unfortunately evident in Ophelia Thinks Harder she is not yet fully versed in the structures and requirements of comedy. The two characters who spend the most time on stage - Ophelia (Clarke) and the Maid (Lauret) - are mired in naturalism and drag the energy and pace down in all their scenes. It is not a question of acting ability because the few times they step outside their main personas they are lively and character is clear. It seems as though there is just an overall lack of awareness that all characters in comedy are archetypes and all acting is heightened.

Luckily most of the rest of the cast embrace this idea although some with more success than others. Anderson (Horatio) is really both the star of the show and the accidental hero, although Scully (Hamlet) meets him measure for measure in energy and commitment. His only real flaw is he forgets to go mad as he gets mad which means some of the more aggressive scenes become extremely uncomfortable due to their sense of sincerity - particularly the abuse scene before interval.

Feng (Guildenstern) and Marich (Rosencrantz) do a great job in all their characters and some of the biggest laughs of the night were when they exited as ghosts. Feng showed some beautiful comedy skills as the ghost of Ophelia's mother. Munoz (Player 4) was also a secret gem although she really had only the smallest of roles.

Piper (Queen) embraces her archetype with commitment and Hanley's costumes reach a pinnacle of perfection in decking out the queen. Piper's outrageous wig and rich red and gold ensemble take us out of the real and into a fantasy world of crazy. There is a strong reference to Alice in Wonderland in the design elements including a checkerboard traverse stage, but in this instance Ophelia is the red queen's pawn.

Betts' play is outrageous as I mentioned earlier. It swings wildly from Aristotle and Aquinos to the true meaning of virginity. It pitches Joan of Arc against Pope Joan. In a Yentl style move Betts makes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern women masquerading as men. Mother Mary also gets a good going over with her purity of body and spirit too. Excerpts from Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet and a few other Shakespeare plays are quoted or referenced. There is so much going on it is hard to keep track but what I will say is most of the actors work hard to keep this wordy script crisp and clear.

This production of Ophelia Thinks Harder sits right on the precipice of being really good and just the slightest more commitment to high energy, fast pace, and embracing the comedy archetypes will turn it into a fun night of theatre with enough sharp pokes of the feminist sword to wound us all. Right now they are relying too heavily on the text for laughs and Betts' script is not up to the job alone. She needs the actors to push harder in the sections she dropped the comedy ball and this cast is up to the challenge so go for it and leave nothing in reserve!

2.5 Stars

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