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 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.

The Secret Love Life of Ophelia
Greenwich Theatre and YouTube     Summer 2020

This made-for-streaming 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 Ophelia's death.

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 three minutes.

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 than others.

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.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  The Secret Love Life Of Ophelia 2020