CentralDramaReview

Ophelia – Crescent Theatre, Birmingham

Reviewer: John Kennedy

Writers: Lucy Spicer and Jessica Mabel

‘There is a willow grows aslant the brook that shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream … but long it could not be till that her garments, heavy with their drink, pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay to muddy death.’ Gertrutes’ obituary for the drowned Ophelia resonates as possibly the most tragi-elegiac poetic obituaries in the English Language. Millais’ Pre-Raphaelite waif-in-the-water portrait sort of just filled in the colours.

Tonight our de-saturated, resurrected Ophelia is haunted by three fellow Shakespearean heroines: Desdemona (Othello, murdered by a jealous husband), Jessica (The Merchant of Venice, died of natural causes) and Lady Macbeth (suicide), although the last as heroine might be stretching it a bit given her aiding and abetting, withholding evidence towards Regicide: notwithstanding the unresolved issue of her ‘lost’ child. The plan, as stated by the Nereids Theatre Company, is ‘…demystifying the Bard’s language…from the woman perspective.’ (Nereids being sea nymphs in Greek mythology – read into that what you will.)

Ophelia embarks on a journey of self-discovery: from a naïve girl in love with a prince to a grief-filled woman standing on a riverbank. Will the ghosts’ calls be enough to bring her back from the edge? A tough call after a brutalising experience of mansplaining, gaslighting and adolescent-driven, chin-stroking, skull-based soliloquising from her part-time lover, Hamlet.

The juxtaposition of iconic fictional characters woven into artificial narrative construct is seriously old-school. Aristophanes’ 5th Century BC comedy, Frogs, sees a frothy-brained Dionysus travel to Hades accompanied by the much wiser Everyman slave, Xanthias, meeting Heracles and other mythical characters reimagined for explicit purposes, those of satire and farce.

For this Ophelia’s female, ensemble cast, will an explicitly feminist agenda be the guiding Muse as inferred in the publicity? Spoiler-alert, look away now. Not really. To lend an unsettling but apposite line from the eponymous text, it’s more honoured in the breach than the observance. Hamlet’s advice to The Players might have been an essential starting point.

There is so much scope in this ingenious plot’s promising conceit – the sly innuendo of Ophelia treasuring Hamlet’s love-token handkerchief only to confront the reveal that her visiting apparition, Desdemona, shares the same handkerchief that leads to her strangulation via the evil connivance of Iago. These female characters endure, in chaotic, brutalising ways, inchoate male-impacting violence. But it is never exploited, even revealed to force the narrative forward for whatever purpose.

Frustratingly, this performance struggles to elicit any convincing empathy with, or pathos from, the protagonist. What does she want? Is her suicide inevitable or are the writers going to subvert the paradigm out of sheer derring-do? (Spoiler, they do!)

For the want of dynamism, dangerous vulnerabilities – even less, visceral human fear of death – a monotony of pace impacts on any sense of anticipation or revelation apart from the predictable denouement. There’s so much more potential jeopardy to explore and exploit that is left wanting. What of the ghosts’ anger, their guilt? Why have they been summoned? Notwithstanding Jessica having some moral ambiguity to deal with given the treatment of her father and her living-happily-ever-after love tryst, does she stand as a role model? So many teasing threads begging to be pulled on from this tapestry of exceptional possibilities. Nonetheless, the ingenious cut ‘n’ paste collage of original verse and contemporary prose works exceptionally well and the players are confident in their conviction: time to live more – much more – dangerously.

Perhaps a bravado, sisters calling out, ‘All men are bastards, and let’s begin with the Bard being a chauvinist git!’ might have at least seen the plot nail its colours to the mast. Inevitably, we see an ’empowered’ Ophelia waving bon-voyage-goodbye, not drowning, in her baggy-trousers, flat-cap and glad-bag in hand. Which is nice. This is a brave leap-of-faith in experimental drama self-described as an ensemble devised piece with no Director. That might be telling. With youth and talent, it’s not enough living close to the edge – time to jump! All the same – it is well worth fifty minutes enjoying a life less ordinary.

Runs Until 27 July 2022

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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