Hamlet is a play filled with unanswered questions and we have spent four centuries trying to decode its secrets. At its heart are big philosophical questions about the purpose and value of life itself which the Danish Prince asks but never finds a satisfactory answer, but the themes of Shakespeare’s greatest play also questions the nature and proprieties of grief, of justifiable revenge against those perceived to have wronged the protagonist and the bonds of duty in parental relationships. But Shakespeare also leaves many avenues unexplored in the context and the setting, huge gaps in the tapestry of Elsinore that subsequent writers have attempted to explain.
The audience never knows why Claudius rather than Hamlet is King, Shakespeare has created a state where hereditary succession is either not the norm or has been circumvented to everybody’s satisfaction. We are never told how complicit Gertrude is in the murder of her first husband or indeed that lust was the only motive for Old Hamlet’s death. And having murdered his rival, why isn’t Claudius threatened by Hamlet at the start of the play and sees no reasons to dispatch his young nephew to his sweet sleep a little early? Perhaps most interesting of all is just what was the nature of the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia, and what promises were made and broken between them that drove her to madness?
In 2001, Steven Berkoff imagined his own interpretation of their love affair, creating an epistolary play called The Secret Love Life of Ophelia which receives a lockdown revival and digital reworking by Greenwich Theatre. Follow-ons, prequels and new angles on classic plays or novels are fairly commonplace; some are extremely accomplished, enhancing but never intruding on the original creator’s intentions such as Tom Stoppards Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a comic perspective on two lesser characters that uses the original Hamlet frame to considerable effect, or P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberly, a murderous sequel to Pride and Prejudice that works very effectively. Equally, other reworkings fail dismally and, unfortunately, Berkoff’s play doesn’t stand-up to scrutiny.
It is important, however, to distinguish between the play and the Greenwich Theatre production. The play itself is just not very good while the production decisions go some way to conceal its failings, showcasing a selection of excellent young performers that inadvertently asks some big questions about how we cast Hamlet in the twenty-first century.
Anyone repurposing a classic play or novel has to take care not to upset or misuse its psychology, that placing the original and the homage side-by-side their themes, action and charactertisation fit neatly together, the new offering a different resonance to the old. When done well, it unlocks another layer in the original play, opening-out and potentially reframing the plot in novel and interesting ways. Stoppard’s pivoted version of Shakespeare’s text (though not to everyone’s taste) uses the pre-existing frame from Hamlet as a backdrop, making the once central characters ridiculous and petulant caricatures from the perspective of those only tangentially involved in the familial saga. And Hamlet is the most yielding of plays, Shakespeare having left so much open to interpretation, not just in the ambiguity of the young Prince’s madness and motive, but in those tantalising open questions about the context of the Danish court as the play begins.
Berkoff’s mistake is to misappropriate the timeline of the action to fit his story without properly comprehending the psychological drivers of Hamlet’s character especially. The conceit of The Love Life of Ophelia is that the central couple continue their affair even after the troubled Dane has publicly shamed his young lover, and the letters they subsequently exchange passionately declare their undimmed connection to one another and the deliberate decision to deceive the court – a pseudo Romeo and Juliet denied one another by politics and duty. Berkoff laces the back and forth with occasional nods to the activities with which we are familiar – the ‘o’er hasty marriage’ of Hamlet’s mother and uncle, the burdensome secret revealed by Old Hamlet’s Ghost, the impending play where a King’s conscience will be caught and the death of Polonius. But none of it sits easily alongside Berkoff’s additional material.
That Hamlet and Ophelia continue a rather intense liaison denies the very complex experience of mourning that Shakespeare so carefully constructs for his leading man, as Hamlet is so overcome with sorrow and despair that his gloomy countenance forces the intervention of his mother and, later, thoughts of suicide that are so profoundly and immersively rendered in the play that Berkoff’s supposition seems impossible. Paralysed by woe, it is ludicrous to imagine that this young man could be so close to the abyss one moment wondering whether ‘to be’ and sending smutty messages to his girlfriend later that same day. That Berkoff has no regard for the nature of depression and grief is clear, and while the notion of a secret relationship plays into the feigned madness interpretation, it just doesn’t fit the trajectory of either character when tied to and examined through the specifically constructed architecture of Shakespeare’s original play.
But the biggest problem with The Secret Love Life of Ophelia is that it just has nothing to say or to add to our perspective on the Danish court, inserting a lewd rom com that does little to flesh-out some of Hamlet’s most tragic subplots. And surely, the most interesting reason for telling the love story of Hamlet and Ophelia is really to shine a light on Ophelia herself, a character Shakespeare uses intermittently but largely neglects. She is a cipher for things that happen to Hamlet himself, in one sense a symbol of the life he rejects and, beautiful and tragic as her death may be, lyrically expressed and impactful, it exists as a means to bring about the play’s finale, a confrontation between Laertes and Hamlet, one designed to bring the royal tragedy to its peak.
Hamlet, then, is fairly well covered, thousands of lines and hours on stage in what is one of the most demanding and fascinating roles in performance history. So, making his agency the purpose of Berkoff’s play feels misguided and unnecessary, reducing Ophelia once again to little more that the sketchy tragic lover that Shakespeare has already given us and – in Berkoff’s irritating male gaze – she becomes little more that a lusty wanton or pinning, girlish cliche, a giggling prosecco drinker with only the twin souls of love and desire to shape her character. It reinforces, once again the ancient, dichotomous representation of women as either goddesses to be worshipped or temptresses to seduce, roles Ophelia is assigned to play in the excruciating and awkward exchanges within Berkoff’s story.
But why does she have to be either? Doesn’t Ophelia deserve her own sense of agency and purpose, being Hamlet’s girlfriend is not her only characteristic so why is so little time given to her relationship with her brother and father, to her own expectations for the future, things she has learned or observed during her time at court and to the wider interior life that she possesses outside of her love for Hamlet. Instead, Berkoff fails the Bechdel test allowing her only to talk of love, she barely comments on Laertes departure for university or her shock, confusion or even grief for the loss of her own father, slain by the man she adores. Ophelia exists in this writer’s mind only to love Hamlet to give voice to Berkoff’s overtly sexualised fantasy of their intimacy described in graphic (and poorly executed) cod Shakespeare and to tamely submit to tiresome medieval maiden stereotypes waiting to be rescued from her supposedly terrible family by a knight in shining armour.
There is a far more interesting story to tell about her experience of rejected passion and how the various circumstances of her life drive her to madness and suicide. By retaining Shakespeare’s own timeline, it would be far more interesting to explore the high romance of their early courtship (pre-dating the action of the play) when presumably Hamlet’s behaviour and feeling gave rise to a mutual intimacy both felt was love. But as Ophelia is unceremoniously dispatched by Hamlet when immured in the darkest depths of his own grief, Berkoff’s piece would have fared much better by leaving Hamlet out of it and tracing Ophelia’s feelings of rejection and torment, a series of unanswered missives perhaps demanding answers, the loneliness of a girl whose family has been torn apart and the slow descent into distraction that leave her vulnerable. Hamlet has got his own play, this one should have been Ophelia’s.
Greenwich Theatre’s Production
Given the lengthy back and forth between the characters in this piece lasting over 90-minutes, on stage it is likely that The Love Life of Ophelia would be rather dull viewing but director James Haddrell has made some interesting decisions that make Berkoff’s disappointing play more palatable. Using the video messaging idea familiar to all of us in recent months, the exchange is rendered as a digital reconstruction of letters found in Ophelia’s bag on the riverbank and read essentially by ‘bots’ who change their face between each new piece of correspondence. Haddrell adds some dynamism to a potentially static play using around 40 performers sharing the evolving roles of Ophelia and Hamlet with a brief cameo from Helen Mirren as Gertrude that adds her star power.
The substance of Berkoff’s play aside, Greenwich Theatre’s production is a signal to the industry of how narrowly these roles have been cast in major productions. Hamlet particularly is usually a celebrity and most often in his mid to late 30s. There has been some racial and gender diversity among these Hamlets – and the Young Vic’s postponed version with Cush Jumbo is another Coronavirus casualty we hope to see rearranged – but how interesting it would be to see a recent graduate assume the role as in this production of The Secret Love Life of Ophelia, while there are plenty of early career performers in their late 20s or early 30s delivering remarkably good secondary roles who could offer very different perspectives on this well known character.
One of the benefits of Haddrell’s approach is its inclusivity, actors playing either role from a variety of backgrounds that does much to reinforce the universality of Shakespeare’s characters and their experiences of grief, love and anger. Whether given a few seconds or minutes of air time, each of these actors responds to and expresses the character in their own entirely valid way, and although essentially one character they represent the endless possible versions of Ophelia and Hamlet that the audience will never see unless we change the way we think about who gets to play this most revered and challenging of roles.
Any attempts to reframe a classic must understand the source material and it is clear from this Greenwich Theatre production that the actors and director really do appreciate the complexity of the characters as well as their centuries-old appeal. We are endlessly fascinated by Hamlet and Ophelia, pondering those tantalizing gaps in the context of the Danish court and the lives within that we yearn to colour-in. It is a shame that Berkoff’s unnecessarily revived play fails to add to the debate despite the thoughtful approach, resulting in an experience that frustrates more often than it delights.