Ophelia Thinks Harder

Gryphon Theatre, 22 Ghuznee Street, Wellington

28/10/2009 - 07/11/2009

The Compleate Workes Project

Production Details

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and Ophelia knows it. 

Fed up with her character being sidelined from the stage of the one of the bard’s best-known plays, Ophelia steals the spotlight from mad Prince Hamlet in a crackling comedy by Wellington playwright Jean Betts with a little help from Bill Shakespeare to ensure that …

First staged more than 15 years ago, this bare-faced farce which pilfers and plays with some of Shakespeare’s best works, is bound to appeal to anyone who’s ever wanted to be seen not just as a woman, or a man, but as a someone for all seasons.

Cast members play multiple roles, cross dress and even cross centuries, in a thoroughly modern performance which takes in many settings from medieval castles, to Depression-era gangster land, as Hamlet the play and not just Ophelia’s mind, is turned on its head.

As royal intrigue swirls about her, and fanned by a ghostly presence and even a witches brew, Ophelia learns the true meaning of virginity – and how to regain it!

She gets all the best lines, soon finds out Hamlet is anything but a sensitive and confused young man and finally rejects her mother’s advice, "Don’t think too much, dear. Just smile."

So, whether or not you thought you knew poor Yorick well, by the end of this uproarious play you will know Ophelia and her ragbag of not-so-royal miscreants even better!

Cost:  $22 waged, $18 unwaged
Webpage:  www.wellingtonrepertory.org.nz
Location:  Gryphon Theatre, 22 Ghuznee Street, Wellington
Email: info@wellingtonrepertory.org.nz
Bookings phone: 479 3393 

Belinda Bretton:
Graeme Carruthers:  Polonius/Laertes, Player 1, Player father, Woman 3 
Helen Chesterman:  Guildenstern, Player 3, Ophelia's mother
Lee Dowsett:  Horatio, Player mother 
Damian Reid:  Hamlet 
Christian Smith, Player 4 
Michelle Soper:  Queen, Woman 2 
Jennifer Thompson:  Rosencranz, Woman 1, Player 2, St Joan 
Katrina Yelavich:  Maid

Production Manager:  Pam Alderton
Stage Manager:  Ross Foubister 
Production assistant:  Charlotte Stephens 
Set Design:  Anna Lowe 
Lighting design:  Dave Cathro 
Sound Design & Operator:  Tim Gruar 
Wardrobe:  Catherine Robertshawe; Sue Miller 
Props:  Charlotte Stephens; Lucy Bowden 
Lighting Operator:  Celia Hulbert 
Set construction:  Ross Foubister; Russell Nelson; Lee Dowsett
Publicity:  Ewen Coleman; Paul Mulrooney; Sam Feder 
Photographs:  Hayden Rogers 
Poster:  Tim Gruar 
Front of House / Box office:  Ewen Coleman

What a piece of work is this play

Review by Melody Nixon 01st Nov 2009

It has been some time since I’ve left a play with a sense of loss, sadness even, that it is over.  Yet the inspiration and colour of Ophelia Thinks Harder, Jean Betts’ reworking of the story of Shakespeare’s Ophelia, stayed with me well after final curtain.  John Marwick’s current production at Gryphon Theatre brings lucidity and vivacity to Betts’ storytelling and impresses with its polished yet casual grace.

Whether or not Betts classes herself as a feminist this play is staunchly pro-women in a way that, at first, whacks you over the head with the apparent singularity of its message, but soon becomes very likeable. 

There are certainly some resource constraints that Marwick and his team appear to be working within, and these are evident in the second and slightly scruffier Act.  Yet Wellington Repertory Theatre Inc. have done a sterling job of bringing out the best in Betts’ writing.  The energetic actors bring a sense of comfort and accomplishment to the stage.  The creative (and humorous) sound design by Tim Gruar gives a sense of a united work that does not take itself too seriously; and the set design by Anna Lowe successfully mixes rebellious grrl power with a touch of the Danish royal court.

As such, the whole production works to provide clear context for the many intermingled Shakespearean quotes Betts uses to feed and complicate the story – Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and of course Hamlet are all drawn upon skilfully.  The breadth of the production allows the more submerged themes of education, knowledge, and women’s relationships with other women to breathe alongside the headstrong feministing.  Betts’ voice comes through as sharp, witty and often clever; once I adjusted to her unique style I found I began questioning why all comedies don’t have such rancour, and such humorous belligerence.

Hamlet (seamlessly played by Damian Reid) is perhaps the best example of a how this production has harnessed one of Betts’ full-tilt characters and worked him the way he’s supposed to be worked.  Immediately obnoxious and constantly effusive, Reid manages to bring subtly and nuance to his misogynistic, violent Hamlet without losing any volume.  Although it seems the character is not fleshed out enough, at times, and provides almost a caricature of a bully, under Marwick’s direction Reid creates such strong feelings in the audience that his character successfully resonates with common experience.  

Belinda Bretton’s gutsy Ophelia is the most remarkable figure of both play and production, astutely and comically played.  Her internal conflict, as well as story arc, are drawn from the original Hamlet and she is embellished with sufficient complexity and madness to outdo the real or feigned madness of Shakespeare’s prince.  The link between Ophelia’s madness and the emotional distress she suffers due to Hamlet’s bullying  and the ‘madness’ of a world in which women are treated as "defective men" is clearly drawn; when she cries "If he feels teased then I must [tease him]" the emotional manipulation is distilled. 

The woefully subjugated Maid (Katrina Yelavich) demonstrates how the mantra of "best safety lies in fear" stops many women from rebelling.  Yelavich takes a little while to warm into her performance, overly fawning a little at first, but ultimately she fills her character with an amazingly varied yet consistent strength.  The recasting of the three witches of Macbeth as suffragettes is a wonderful addition to the melange of unlikely characters, and the reworking of the Queen (Michelle Soper) to create a hard-edged supporter of patriarchy is most enjoyable.

Also immensely entertaining are the characters of Rosencrantz (Jennifer Thompson) and Guildenstein (Helen Chesterman), two drag kings that shed learned light on the long reign of patriarchy as they seek to encourage and inspire Ophelia: "They clip our wings and then get angry that we can’t fly."  Although Chesterman’s Cockney accent remains a bit of a mystery, it doesn’t detract from the credibility of her performance.

Certain aspects of the plot do not completely wind up; the Maid’s character, for example, disappears without much resolution.  The play within a play, wherein Hamlet intends to "capture the conscience of the King," is run through too quickly and the clash of Ophelia’s own pain with the ‘murder’ scene is hard to follow, due, it seems, to slightly jumbled staging.  And the purpose of Hamlet’s faithful friend Horatio (superbly played by Lee Dowsett), is not entirely clear; while he perhaps provides an alternative male role model with his gentle and sensitive air he seems somewhat ancillary to Ophelia’s journey into virginity.  The ending of the play itself did not quite hit the right note on the night I attended; perhaps rushed, perhaps showing a fault in the script, it could have been worked to provide a greater impact.

All in all however, what a piece of work is the play; a thoroughly enjoyable and surprising gem that is not afraid to tackle the unpopular.  I take my bowler hat off to the unapologetic audacity of Betts’ playful piece and to the Wellington Repertory for revisiting such an interesting work.  And for reminding us that incisive, witty and enjoyable feminist works need not at all be a thing of the past.
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