By Anne-Louise Fortune
Ophelia, presented by University of Bristol Spotlights, takes the story of one of the few female characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and attempts to fill in the blanks in her backstory. It also attempts to answer some of the questions many people will have had over the centuries about why Ophelia’s story ends the way it does.
Presented in modern dress and modern language, the action begins before Shakespeare’s narrative starts. Ophelia is a young woman and trying to determine her place in the world. She’s under a lot of pressure from her brother Laertes, and her dad, Polonius, to behave in a certain way. Laertes is the physical embodiment of the “lads, lads, lads” stereotype, and nagging his dad for more cash for a ‘gap yah’ – even though he has no intention of actually going to university. Polonius is all hypocrisy, mixed with no idea of how to interact with a teenage girl who is still plainly mired in grief for her dead mother.
The locations and narrative world have also been modernised, and so Ophelia meets Hamlet on a night out in a club. They are both incredibly awkward in a way that’s very endearing. Polonius forbids Ophelia to see Hamlet. This is, of course, the quickest way to guarantee that the couple will find ways to break that ban. Time passes in a way that is not entirely clear, and then the deaths begin.
Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most well-known tragedies, and it’s very difficult to write an Alternative Universe version that doesn’t have the same tragic ending. What this version seeks to do is to ask why Ophelia doesn’t run from Elsinore. Why does she not choose the ‘nunnery’? Indeed, it’s established early on that Ophelia herself has no interest in following the path others are trying to send her down: she does not want to study for a degree to then just marry and have children. Rather, she would much prefer to live on her own in a cottage in the woods with her thoughts.
One of the clever aspects of this adaptation is that Ophelia’s Thoughts are made flesh as two unnamed friends, who also act as the angel and devil on Ophelia’s shoulders, alternately cautioning and encouraging her to behave in certain ways. This allows us to understand Ophelia’s thoughts whilst avoiding heavy monologuing.
As the darkness continues to overtake any happiness Ophelia feels, the script starts to lose its way slowly. With suddenly a lot to pack into the brief running time, Hamlet’s mental health suddenly takes a very worrying turn, and his grief over the death of his father manifests in violence. This felt too rushed and almost totally unexpected, given the earlier trajectory of Hamlet’s characterisation.
Whilst it’s clear that an awful lot of analysis of the original text has been undertaken and that a lot of firm decisions have been made, in the last third of this play, it feels like there is too much being attempted. Laerte’s justification that this can end no other way than as first written feels like someone giving up on trying to find any alternate resolution. Why can’t Ophelia live?
Ophelia cannot live because of the weight of men’s expectations and their demands about how she acts in any situation. If she speaks, she is derided as mad. If she remains silent, the response is the same. If she cries, she is accused of hysteria. She cannot win and will never be allowed to take her own decisions about her own life.
Making clever use of the most well-known speeches – some of them more directly translated than others, this production asks us what level of self-determination any of us ever possess and how we might change the story written by others about us. Well acted, and with thought given to the staging in the restricted space of the Willow Studio at Riddles Court, this is a thoughtful adaptation which directs our attention to one of Shakespeare’s more background, but very important, female characters.
Ophelia continues at the Edinburgh Fringe until August 19th.