National Gallery of Australia, April 27
It’s widely thought to be the greatest play ever penned, and some consider it the pinnacle of the western canon, period. Yet despite its intellectual breadth, psychological depth and sheer length, Hamlet’s only females are a queen who marries her husband’s murderer with unseemly haste, and a spurned wallflower who goes bonkers.
But what if Ophelia doesn’t go mad? What if the rest of Denmark is patriarchically loopy? This is the premise behind this joint production between Melbourne’s Essential Theatre and Three Birds Theatre, brought to the NGA to farewell the Love & Desire Pre-Raphaelite exhibition, a key work in which was John Everett Millais’ Ophelia.
The pathos, innocence and resignation in Millais’ depiction of her drowning catches an essence of Shakespeare’s character. By contrast the Ophelia of this play, written by Candace Miles, Madelaine Nunn and Anna Rodway, directed by John Kachoyan, and collaboratively developed with the all-female cast, could not be more different.
As improbable as it seems from the source material, the piece is principally a comedy. Denmark (which put the “fun” into “funeral”) is a world unto itself, with Hamlet telling Ophelia, “I’ve been to not-Denmark. There’s nothing but blank space for miles and miles.” Nonetheless dark shadows hide behind many of the laughs, as we see the Hamlet milieu from Ophelia’s perspective. She is bullied by her father, her brother, Hamlet and the aggressive, possessive Gertrude, whose relationship with Ophelia is portrayed as a chess game, and who comes to describe her son’s girlfriend as “a button hanging from a loose thread”.
The superb Alex Aldrich makes Gertrude compelling and confronting, while still slotting her into the production’s bizarre, dreamlike humour. Anna Rodway is the put-upon Ophelia who refuses to be driven mad by the twisting machinations that surround her, Madelaine Nunn the manipulative Hamlet, Candace Miles the domineering Laertes and Sophie Lampel the irascible Polonious.
The striking, heightened, sharply choreographed performances are reminiscent of Steven Berkoff’s dazzling production of Wilde’s Salome, with unison delivery of many lines, and the sculpted angles of limbs and heads communicating as much the words. The design team of Steve Hendy (lighting), Laura Hawkins (set and costumes) and especially Russell Goldsmith (sound and music) amplify the surreal vision at every step. It’s not perfect, and in less than an hour it’s over, but Ophelia will never be quite the same again.