In 2018, the question of what the women think and do— both on the stage and off — is paramount. And it’s a potent, if not difficult question, that indie company Essential Theatre attempts to capture in their latest offering, Enter Ophelia.
As the name suggests, the company have rewritten Shakespeare’s Hamlet from Ophelia’s perspective. And what a pointed rewriting it is. In Ophelia’s eyes — and in the audience’s forced perspective as well – the Dane’s formerly tragic home state is turned lurid and garish and showy, a non-stop swirl of voices that sound far too similar, hollow praises to the state, and a furious refusal to let one catch one’s breath. As for a plot? Yes it’s Hamlet, but Hamlet in the kind of snapshots Ophelia experiences off-stage; moments of romance between herself and her moody prince, or conversations between herself and Gertrude on the nature of their place, turned into a literal chess game.
But while fine work’s done by the cast in handling their quick-paced riffs on Shakespeare’s language and transformation of themselves from character to all-seeing chorus to back again, it’s difficult not to feel that this is more of a matter of giddy style over substance. As it is, La Mama hardly feels big enough to capture the larger-than-life, vaudeville-like stylings of the group, who are instead forced into prowling about the edges of their black box confines in what occasionally amounts to visual clutter. More troublingly, and despite prolific borrowing of Shakespeare’s words, it’s difficult not to see the play for what it is: a pointed, force-fed commentary on feminism.
Take for example, Hamlet (a sneering, prowling, admittedly Madelaine Nunn), whose interactions with Ophelia seem so forcedly childish and selfish that one can’t help but see the writer’s strings.
The play’s strongest moments come when the troupe choose to skew away from their borrowing of Shakespeare’s original language and concepts and veer outright into the absurd and poetic. Flashes of inspiration come in the form of Ophelia’s lyrical inner stream-of-consciousness and Amanda LaBonte’s world-weary, femme-fatale take on Gertrude, who unexpectedly provides Ophelia with perhaps the most sensible advice in the play.
But again, it still come back to style. More often than not, Essential Theatre’s wild imagination gets in the way of what they’re trying to say about the text; and combined with the breakneck speed at which the cast move through short bursts of action, as well as the lack of a truly nuanced through line and a questionable final act, and it’s difficult to embrace the group’s message. Or in short: there’s just one too many a stylistic tic for this piece to really stick its landing.
Overall, one can’t help but wish that the troupe had done more with the concept; or better yet, chosen a different famous female on which to centre their attentions. To bring it back — in this day and age, there’s something rather trite about simply giving a woman a voice, but precious more than that.
What do the women think?
Well, one would hope, something a little more substantial than this.