Shakespeare

Ophelia Is Also Dead

21/08/19

theSpace at Niddry Street, Edinburgh

Ophelia is also Dead is – as you might infer from the title – Ophelia’s story, given more weight than Shakespeare ever intended. Here, the sketchy image of the deranged drowned girl is developed into a fully-rounded character, with a disctinctive voice.

The script, by Aliya Gilmore, is insightful and inventive, almost a forensic study of Hamlet and Ophelia’s function within it. Dripping with water in a ravaged wedding dress, Ophelia tells us who she really is.

Fionna Monk’s performance is impressive: all anger and anguish, determined to be seen. I like the meta-theatricality, particularly the notion that she is all Ophelias in all productions, facing a never-ending raft of badly-interpreted Hamlets.  She has been Ophelia for four-hundred years; she’s seen herself portayed in many ways.

However, for all its quirky originality, this Durham University play somehow feels a bit too essay-ish, like a student trying to demonstrate everything they know about Shakespeare. And I really think it needs to be a monologue; the rest of the cast are under-used, serving only as a distraction, interrupting Ophelia’s flow. The intensity of Monk’s interpretation is undermined by these pointless cameos.

Still, this offers a new and interesting perspective on a criminally overlooked character.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

 

The Herbal Bed

English Touring Theatre

The Lowry, Salford

30/03/16

The Herbal Bed: The Secret Life of Shakespeare’s Daughter takes the sparse historical details of a suit for slander and weaves them into an engaging tale. The facts are few: Susanna Hall (Shakespeare’s oldest daughter) was accused, in 1613, of having an affair with a local man, Rafe Smith. The accuser, Jack Lane, was convicted of slander, and excommunicated for his crime.

Playwright Peter Whelan extrapolates a convincing narrative from these scant details; indeed, in this version of events, Lane is telling the truth: Susanna and Rafe have indeed been intimate. But, with help from her reluctant maid, Susanna takes the moral high ground, and Lane is exposed as a spiteful liar.

It’s an interesting play, with strong performances. Michael Mears, as Vicar-General Goche, is a real delight: a perfect incarnation of lugubrious self-righteousness, revelling in the sordid details of the sin he so abhors. Matt Whitchurch, as the hapless Lane, is also very good: a brash, emphatic performance, yes, but also a convincing one, and a welcome relief in what is overall a very measured piece.

If there’s a problem with this production, it’s in the measured tone. There’s no peril here, no real tension. We know the outcome of the case; we know Susanna’s reputation – and her marriage – survive the accusations sent her way. And nobody gets carried away by emotion: apart from one brief moment of passion, Rafe and Susanna behave with sober propriety; Susanna’s husband, John Hall (Jonathan Guy Lewis) remains calm throughout. The affair, such as it is, doesn’t really seem to matter; no one’s heart is broken; no one really cares.

In the programme, director James Dacre says that Whelan “never imposes an unrealistic crisis for the sake of good drama.” And, of course, no one wants to see an unrealistic crisis in a serious play like this. But what would be wrong with a realistic crisis? It’s a fictionalised account; the possibilities are limitless. And a little excitement would go a long way.

Despite this niggle, I enjoyed The Herbal Bed. It’s intelligently conceived, and well delivered – certainly one to watch.

4 stars

Susan Singfield