Writer: Steven Berkoff
Director: James Haddrell
The story so far: after her boyfriend has ordered her to join a nunnery and then stabbed her father to death behind the arras, poor Ophelia consigns herself to a watery end. As the title of Steven Berkoff’s 2001 play implies, much else about this tragic young lady remains secret, while her boyfriend, the title character of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is probably the most analysed and discussed figure in English drama.
Berkoff joins fellow dramatists Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) and Howard Barker (Gertrude – The Cry) in expanding and exploring Hamlet’s lesser characters. With his habit of skulking away from his family and talking to himself, Hamlet could be seen as a perfect role model for the age of social distancing, but director James Haddrell takes this a stage further by presenting his version of Berkoff’s play in the form of video messages, the production having been shot entirely during lockdown.
The theory, cherished by many interpreters of Shakespeare’s play, that Hamlet is gay is despatched quickly by Berkoff. His Hamlet has a lusty eye for Ophelia and the couple’s exchanges become highly suggestive and mildly erotic. Hamlet’s father is already dead as Berkoff’s play begins, which makes the carefree romanticism of early scenes feel out of step with Shakespeare, but events in the two plays draw closer together in the later stages to give greater consistency. A sombre tribute to Ophelia delivered by Queen Gertrude (Helen Mirren in regal form) rounds things off.
Very skilfully, Berkoff writes in mock Tudor style (a lot of “thee”s and “thou”s), but his love “letters” going backwards and forwards eventually become repetitive and tiresome. The scenes are recorded in modern dress and modern settings, using modern technology and the two roles are performed by 31 actors. Coming in varying shapes and sizes, with differing accents and of many races, 16 Hamlets and 15 Ophelias express their love and lust for each other. Haddrell constructs too many obstacles to allow his production to work properly as a consistent single drama, but the big success of the project comes with the richness and variety of the performances.
These are brutal times for young actors, but this production could be viewed as a mixed show reel of talent that will hopefully become a feast for casting directors once they get back to work. The present may be bleak for the 31 seen here, but their futures could be bright.
Available here until 14 August 2020