The Theatreguide.London Review
In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic
forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted
by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others
by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review
the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.
Secret Love Life of Ophelia
Greenwich Theatre and YouTube Summer 2020
online production from the Greenwich Theatre is not particularly
successful as a piece of theatre. But since its purposes extend beyond the
dramatic, it may have more value than appears at first.
Playwright Steven Berkoff is
celebrated by his fans (among whom I count myself) for his signature
method of elevating common characters and sometimes ugly stories through
inventive and evocative quasi-Shakespearean verse.
Here, however, he starts with
a Shakespearean story and tries to push it even higher, and the result too
often wavers between the bathetic and the ludicrous.
The play takes the form of a
string of letters between Hamlet and Ophelia, tracing the romance that
takes place largely before and offstage during Shakespeare's version. For
this online production director James Haddrell turns the letters into
Skype-like video messages passing between the two and somehow hacked and
preserved for us.
Much of the first half is
devoted to their explicitly sexual interest and then delight in each
other, as they take turns describing first their hopes for and then their
memories of moments together.
But as romantic language
moves toward the double- and then single-entendre, with he speaking of his
'hot molten lava jetting forth' and she promising to 'suck thy root,'
things approach the terminally silly.
What turns for a while into
rococo Victorian pornography - let's not dwell too long on the 'string of
pearls' – thankfully fades in the second half as Shakespeare's plot begins
to demand attention and we get reports on and reactions to the Nunnery
Scene, the Mousetrap and the killing of Polonius.
The play ends with the
arrival of a third voice, Gertrude speaking Shakespeare's description of
Statements on Greenwich's
website and press release make clear that the primary purpose of this
production was not so much to present Berkoff's play, but to showcase a
large number of young performers deprived of opportunities by the closing
of the theatres.
To that end thirty-nine
actors (one more Hamlet than Ophelia) share the two roles, each getting a
single video message and the opportunity to be onscreen, in what appear to
be their own real-life bedrooms, kitchens or gardens, for between one and
Inevitably there is very
little continuity of characterisation here, some of the Ophelias more
sensual than others, some of the Hamlets more laddish. They're not all
equally talented or equally able to present their personalities, so some
of these what-amount-to-audition-pieces are likely to be more successful
Helen Mirren generously lends
her name to the promotion of this production, and appears onscreen for
forty-five seconds as Gertrude.
Supporters of Greenwich Theatre should be moved to make a donation, friends and family of the thirty-nine young actors will want to watch at least two or three minutes of this, and fans of Berkoff may stick it out to fill a gap in their knowledge of his plays. But there is really not much here.
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