To be or not to be? These are the kinds of questions asked by the greatest poets and philosophers of all time – the ones who have the time to perpetually introspect and consume oneself in an exploration of oneself’s identity. And by greatest, we means with the privilege of having their voices heard and words glorified. And by privilege, we mean malehood.
In a night of uproarious feminism and entertainment, artist-led theatre company Wit Incorporated animates New Zealand playwright Jean Betts’ neo-Shakespearean masterpiece Ophelia Thinks Harder. Crediting Shakespeare himself as a co-writer, Betts’ script is alive with electric comedy, cunning prosody and the determination to break down the inaccuracies that are often told and retold in the longwinded history of gender and gender politics. Through literary mimicry and semantic ingenuity, Ophelia Thinks Harder is the modern day resurrection of Hamlet from the perspective of Ophelia, our Prince’s lover. With Ophelia’s character developing over the ages through reinterpretations of her character’s psychology and the themes of the piece, Betts rebirths her as a “free-thinking everywoman, one that experiences an awakening sexually, philosophically, and spiritually”. In combat of the misogynistic undertones that built Ophelia originally, Ophelia Thinks Harder pins the struggle of woman against those very conventions in a very real attempt of self-definition rather than its societal counterpart.
Directed by the goldmine that is Belinda Campbell, Ophelia Thinks Harder flourishes its feathers and spread its wings in all of its glory. Taking the very naturalistic characters of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and morphing them into grotesque caricatures, Campbell showcases the savvy team of dedicated performers paired with erudite direction. Exaggerating the stereotype of toxic and fragile masculinity, the male characters possess very childlike traits in big brawny bodies: using strength to overpower, slandering the woman when she denies him, trying to woo the woman whether through charm or through insult, and even proclaiming “Why are women so emotional?” after an aggressive breakdown, hanging their shoulders like sulky toddlers. Focusing on Ophelia’s trials and tribulations in a corrupt love, the gender divide maintains both a heightened yet very real depiction of brotherly camaraderie almost in antagonisation of the women of the piece. Whilst allowing the woman’s voice to resonate both aurally and emotionally, Campbell lightens the densely political and introspective script with moments of comedy and light-heartedness to keep the audience engaged, a hard thing to do when the politics of the piece are quite outdated.
Claiming the entirety of the intimate space that is the Bluestone Church Arts Space, theatre-goers know that set designers Sarah Clarke and Jennifer Piper have established their turf by the handmade castle towers that dominate the foyer space. The looming wall contains a booth where the box office and bar operate, and dangles a sheet between its two parapets like a royal curtain. When entering through the side of the castle, two walls of tiered seating materialise on either side of a strip of stage, soon to seat the onlookers for our court jesters in their performance. Mere feet from our actors, Clarke and Piper bring the audience right into the heart of the piece and against the raw emotion of the unobscured faces. With the length of the hall acting as a neutral transitioning ground and becoming wherever the scene calls for, both ends are set: at one end, Ophelia’s messy teenage room decorated with a metallic bedframe and a wall of posters, a contrast of both teenage-heartthrob movie celebrities and anglo-religious affirmations; and on the other, the royal throne sits amidst a hanging of red drapes. Having these two consistent places makes all transitions smooth effortlessly into one another.
Costume designer Georgina Hanley bolsters the theme of contemporary meets classic with her mesh of royal attire, era-appropriate undergarments and your everyday wear. Bringing out the colloquial nature of the play, Hanley dresses her princes in jeans and all as if in expression of their relaxed freedom and identity, whereas the women tended to be dressed up in their royal expectations, further accentuating the socio-political divide at hand. This nuance was further explored in the hair and makeup, having the women (specifically Ophelia) tie their hair up in knots and buns and stresses when in the vicinity of a man or when having to maintain royal poise and profile, then loosening the hair and letting it fall shaggy when in the comfort and confines of their own space.
To help the transitions of time and place, lighting designer Jennifer Piper flexes her fingers and shifts worlds for us. Using the towers at either and as lighting rigs, Piper has full access to the length of the stage and is able to separate the two worlds fixed onstage by using her lighting proficiently. With a mixture of colours and shades and scopes and washes, Piper implements all from sunrises to ghostly hazes without confusion. Complementing some of these transitions and the moments onstage is Campbell’s audio design, slipping in snippets of pop ballads to point at the shallow love between Ophelia and the prince and other golden moments. Operating these cues was Ellie Singe and Cian Westall under the keen eye of stage manager Valerie Dragojevic.
With a tight cast of 9, each performer is given the chance to shine, and shine they do. Sarah Clarke takes on the role of Ophelia with stunning conviction and the ability to draw the audience into her mind like no other; although taking a few minutes to warm into her performance, Clarke gave new life to Ophelia and struggled alongside her, her pain ringing in the silence and her determination booming with her voice. Her manipulative prince, Hamlet, is played by the inimitable Leigh Scully, whose boisterous nature is exaggerated by Scully’s adept use of gesture and dramatic vocal movements. Sidekick to our prince is none other than Sam Anderson in the role of Horatio; while Hamlet is much more gestural and erratic with his movement, Anderson’s interpretation has him stiff and locked as if bound by his undying loyalty to his best friend, only relaxing into his motions and charming smile when without him. Ruby Lauret dons the mature yet near-voided character of the maid, a woman of quiet dignity who is slowly stripped of her soft-spoken grace and sanity as the story progresses; Lauret’s maid is alluring in her often mysterious words and wonders, showcasing her brilliant monologuing skills at the pique of her downfall.
Jennifer Piper demands attention as the Queen, pertaining completely to contemporary mannerisms and colloquialisms in her blasé yet flamboyant nature with a moment of reclamation of her matriarchy. Aimee March and Lansy Feng became the hilarious yet politically-enlightening Rosencrantz and Guildenstern respectively, a slapstick duo with side-splitting comic timing and large facial expressions to keep the audience in stitches. March is double-cast as the ghost of St Joan, charging huffily around in her green light and trying to get her message across; Feng steals the show in her cameo as the ghost of Ophelia’s mother, generating rupturous laughter and applause throughout her brief stay. Matt Tester hobbles onto the stage as Polonius, stoic and stolid in his presence; however, Tester would do well in trying up his breath support as his lines were often lost even in the quiet, too soft to be heard and mumbled under his breath. Finally, Artemis Muñoz plays Player 4, with the others double-cast or sometimes triple-cast as Players 1, 2 and 3; gawky and limp in her stance, Muñoz charms the audience in her warm and gentle nature, delivering a beautiful poem near the end of the piece and becoming a catalyst for Ophelia to really reconsider where she stands in order to take back her sense of confident self.
While the energy of the piece as a whole sparked with life, one cannot deny that moments were consistently either too aggressive or lax. While Shakespeare needs crisp and crackling electricity behind the motions and characterisations, electricity can be contained and rerouted and compressed for a much more effective surge. Knowing how to be emotional, knowing how to be loud, knowing how to be uncaring can all sit on the edge of tipping into a boring same-same performance, lose the integrity of both Shakespeare’s language and Betts’ political stance. It is worth the performer’s knowing, while having a firm grasp on their own niche skills in their acting, that variation does not necessarily mean deviation; that having a bit more emotional and physical flexibility will not distract from the character nor detract from the performance. There is a fine line between serving the intention of a performance and a self-serving performance. All in all, this phenomenal cast deserves to be seen by any and all.
With an all-female team, it is hard to fault the piece and its sincerities. It is time for history to stop repeating itself under the perspective of man. As excavated in this awe-inspiring and game-changing piece, woman has made history as much as man, but has often been misconstrued in blind eyes, creating a power dissonance that is upheld physically due its having been incorrectly reinterpreted upon the scriptures over the centuries. Ophelia Thinks Harder shows that women should not need to prove their strength – they are strength, just as they are weakness, just as they, too, know and have human struggles. They are just as men are, but are matured by their pain perhaps beyond male understanding and their privilege to not understand it.