Greenwich Theatre’s streamed production of The Secret Love Life Of Ophelia is a highly laudable attempt to present some new faces to the public eye. With very few productions being realised across the country, it is not the best of times to be launching an acting career, and yet here are 39 recent graduates all getting their moment in the spotlight. I suspect this video will be required watching for casting directors and agents but what about the general public?
The 2001 play by Steven Berkoff was originally designed for two performers and is structured as a series of letters between Hamlet and Ophelia. These largely follow events in Shakespeare’s original and seek to give greater substance to the relationship of the two characters. It is often said that it is impossible for any one performer to fully convey all the various facets of Hamlet’s character and even here with a tranche of actors this still proves to be the case. Berkoff’s version certainly gives more weight to Ophelia and provides her with a stronger voice in the proceedings, much in the same way as Stoppard rescued Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from relative obscurity. Berkoff writes in iambs in imitation of the original and, without slavishly doing so, replicates the expected patterns of Elizabethan speech; alas, this does not always work. While I applaud the concept I couldn’t love the play.
In this version, the letters are presented as video messages with the two characters speaking alternately. It is usually the case that the pair can gradually introduce nuance into performance as the audience gets to follow a developing story arc but here each new letter is performed by a new actor and therefore any continuity evaporates. There is an ingenious statement in the opening credits which explains why the pair’s appearance is constantly changing but as this happens multiple times, a repetitiveness soon sets in as we flick from one performer to another; I’m not sure that a whole programme of this makes for a satisfying experience from an audience’s point of view.
This deliberate attempt not to develop a through line for each of the characters is a little disconcerting (though comforting if you don’t like someone’s delivery as in a couple of minutes there will be someone new coming along). Neither are the pieces distributed particularly equitably – indeed I’d be intrigued to know how the various sections were assigned. I felt particularly for the couple which had to get the ball rolling as this was possibly the most demanding in terms of setting the tone. And some of the subsequent letters were so short that the poor actor hardly had time to get going before their turn was over. Berkoff provides some excruciatingly embarrassing sub-D.H. Lawrence stuff to deliver about a quarter of the way through as Hamlet and Ophelia explore their sexual relationship. Some of the dialogue here is just risible and should have been entered for the Literary Review’s “Bad Sex In Fiction” award; actors in this section drew the proverbial short straw. Matters are much improved in the second half where things become a bit punchier and there is more for performers to get their teeth into. However, I was left wondering how anyone not knowing Hamlet’s plot would fare; probably they wouldn’t be watching anyway. I particularly liked the bathroom scene where Hamlet cleans up after killing Polonius and there is a burst of action as he departs from Denmark. The descent into a suicidal frame of mind is well done by the last few Ophelias though the decision to film her final appearance to a background of noisy traffic detracts somewhat; it is, however, a clever image to show her mobile running out of battery. Helen Mirren makes a brief appearance at the end in a coda from Queen Gertrude, taken from the original.
I’m not going to try and single out individual performances because I’d probably attribute a section to the wrong performer and many actors are not on screen for a sufficient length of time to help form any sort of satisfactory opinion. This is a kind of literary relay race in which I almost felt as though I was watching a series of self-taped audition pieces. But it is clear from these that any number of these young actors could have performed the roles in a professional production. So all other caveats aside, bravo to Greenwich for coming up with such a novel way of raising their own profile and that of some of the next generation of actors. Hopefully, they will not have to wait too long to be working on a real stage.
The Secret Love life Of Ophelia is available on Greenwich Theatre’s You Tube channel. Click here
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