New Review critic Georgia Mill encounters a feminist twist on Shakespeare in Wit Incorporated’s Ophelia Thinks Harder
The term hysteria has only been removed from medical use in the last hundred years. It was once a widely applied medical diagnosis for women who suffered from a range of symptoms that included anxiety, shortness of breath, emotional outbursts and sexual urges. The source was thought to be a wandering uterus that could move freely around a woman’s body.
Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet has long been associated with this term – a woman crippled with grief, manipulated into questioning her own sanity, who tragically drowns in a brook when she falls from a willow tree. Ophelia Thinks Harder, written by Jean Betts and presented by award-winning feminist theatre company Wit Incorporated, refocuses Hamlet on Ophelia’s perspective, highlighting how she is essentially gaslighted by Hamlet.
Directed by Belinda Campbell and featuring Sarah Clarke as Ophelia, the performance takes place at The Bluestone Church Arts Space with the audience close to the action on both sides of the stage. The set has been designed to look like a teenage girl’s bedroom, with a single bed and posters on the wall: a reminder that Ophelia was very young when she was dealing with complex adult relationships.
The plot stays true to the language and format of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but injects new dialogue and scenes to centre Ophelia, a woman presumed mad and hysterical, forced to protect her virtue and frustrated by her lack of autonomy. She grapples with her identity, the lack of options that only permit her to become a wife or a nun. At one point she asks Queen Gertrude (Jennifer Piper) why she can’t just “be herself”. Gertrude, who resembles the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, laughs as if that is the most ridiculous thing she has ever heard. Piper’s wily portrayal of Gertrude mirrors the Queen of Hearts not only in her costume, but in her her fickle temper and desire for control.
Piper, Leigh Scully (Hamlet) and Sarah Clarke (Ophelia) give life to the text, transcending the gap between the 17th century and now. The audience is pulled into the performance by the intimate setting, as the performers make direct eye contact and include us in their jokes. Without this humour, I would have had trouble accessing the monologues and soliloquies.
Rosencrantz (Aimee Marich) and Guildenstern (Lansy Feng) are reinterpreted as women in drag who play a key role in encouraging Ophelia to “think harder” and question her fate. Their lively performances are a relief from Hamlet’s malevolence and Ophelia’s depression. They explain that our understanding of virginity is wrong and that the original meaning was for a woman to be true to herself: it “has nothing to do with the hymen”.
At this point, I was expecting a change of tone: some kind of feminist face-punch that would see Ophelia assert herself and challenge the power dynamics. By “thinking harder”, though, she seemed to slip further into self-doubt, sliding back and forth between different aspects of who she wanted to be. It’s not until she’s wrongly presumed dead that she seems to take control of her life, finding solace by pretending to be an actor in a theatre group. Despite the fact that freedom was only attainable by masquerading as a man (which is problematic), the ending feels a little rushed when so much time was given to introducing the characters and their various interests.
The strength of this show is comedy. It was interesting to note which jokes landed with different audience members: I saw men laughing at the ridiculously misogynistic lines from Hamlet, while women in the audience sat stone-faced and sighed. The humour was used cleverly, cultivating that unsettling feeling when you catch yourself laughing at something shouldn’t be funny.
For me, the work that went into skewing the play was sometimes lost in the complex plot and the length of the show (almost three hours with an interval). Sometimes I found it hard to stay with because of the sheer volume of material. There were characters and plot lines that didn’t seem to lead anywhere, including the three witches from Macbeth who (although very funny) didn’t seem to influence the action.
Even so, in the wake of the #MeToo movement we see an industry plagued by double standards and the inability to listen to and believe the voices of women. We need more performances that unsettle the classics, shaking their audiences into new perspectives.
Ophelia Thinks Harder, by Jean Betts and William Shakespeare, directed by Belinda Campbell. Costumes by George Hanley; Stage Manager Val Dragojevic; Operators Ellie Singe, Cian Westall. Performed by Sam Anderson, Sarah Clarke, Lansy Feng, Ruby Rose Lauret, Aimee Marich, Artemis Muñoz, Jennifer Piper, Leigh Scully, Matt Tester Wit incorporated at the Bluestone Church Arts Space, 8A Hyde Street Footscray. Until 24 November. Bookings
Relaxed performance Sunday November 18, Auslan interpreted show Thursday 22 November. Wheelchair accessible.
Contains sexual references, homophobia, misogyny, sexual assault, staged violence, intimate partner violence and coarse language.