Ophelia Thinks Harder

Making a welcome return to the Bridewell Theatre after 18 months of postponement due to lockdown, SEDOS demonstrated that there has been no loss of talent, professionalism or production value in the intervening period with Ophelia Thinks Harder. However, while West End shows may be attracting near capacity audiences (possibly assisted by aggressive promotion) it would have been disheartening for the cast to see an unusually small audience of around 20 for a SEDOS production. While there is some suggestion that there is an element of audience reluctance to attend smaller venues as a result of Covid concerns, there must also be some question a to whether this particular play was sufficiently attractive to a potential audience.

All of this is no reflection on the cast who pulled together the elements of a challenging play. Natalie Harding-Moore (Ophelia) was outstanding in the lead role. This was a performance of intelligence, sensitivity and humour, bringing to life the conflicting emotions and societal pressures of Shakespeare’s unexamined and unrecognised heroine. She was well matched by Josh Beckman (Hamlet) in an alternate interpretation of Shakespeare’s conflicted and indecisive character, emerging much more as an unpleasantly deluded misogynist. It was a pity that his occasional frantic delivery of lines particularly in Act 1 sometimes led to a loss of diction and therefore clarity of meaning. The reinterpretation of Horatio as Hamlet’s loyal and honourable friend, who harbours a repressed passion for Ophelia, was well found in the portrayal by Rhydian Harris. In the process, he succeeded in making Horatio much more the hero of the piece in upholding the simple virtue of decency. Although the action revolves around the substantial role of Ophelia, there are a number of significant other roles which were essential for the overall success of the play. Danielle Capretti’s steely Queen, Heathers Daniel’s descent into madness as the maid, David Pearson’s overbearing but inherently weak Polonius with Emily Bates (Rosencrantz) and Josie Teale (Guildenstern) providing intellectual context for the history of women’s role in society.

Author Jean Betts was apparently frustrated by her inability to relate to classic heroines and placed Ophelia at the heart of this reinterpretation of Hamlet partly as a means of exploring women’s issues. However the structure of the play is such that some knowledge of the original is required to appreciate the twists in characterisation and plot, together with re-contextualisation of some well-known speeches. This in turn results in some of the humour deriving from recognition of original sources (drawn liberally from other plays such as Macbeth, Othello and Taming of the Shrew) passing over the heads of audience members not so versed in Shakespeare. At times therefore, the play becomes something of an intellectual exercise which teeters dangerously towards self-indulgence. Ironically (and perhaps deliberately so) elements of this are examined when the Players discuss the extent to which theatre should pander to audience preference or maintain intellectual integrity for those who can appreciate it. The answer to which is of course that the two do not necessarily have to be mutually exclusive. Awareness of audience tolerance is an obvious example. There is an imbalance between an overlong Act 1 with many angst infused speeches and a much more pacey plot driven Act 2.

In his programme notes, director Matt Bentley acknowledges that as the play was written in the early 90s, “our thinking has evolved significantly in the last 30 years”. Unfortunately, no amount of “additional knowledge that the conversation looks very different 30 years later” can disguise the fact that the piece is still as it was written. He has nonetheless gathered and choreographed an excellent cast who succeed in capturing the original sense of the play. Space is used well, employing Yvette Shiel’s simple but effective design and moving the action along as fast as the structure of the play allows.

Sadly, in spite of the considerable efforts made and some outstanding performances, considerable flaws remain with the play itself which do unfortunately limit the degree of potential audience enjoyment.

Review by Robin Kelly

Ophelia Thinks Harder is on at the Bridewell Theatre until the 2nd October. You can book tickets and find out about Sedos’ future shows here.

If you like this review you might also like my reviews of Next Thing You Know, Dogfight and Little Women, all by Sedos.

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