Review: Ophelia Thinks Harder (and So Do We)
Currently on at the Newcastle Theatre Company is New Zealand playwright Jean Bett’s play titled Ophelia Thinks Harder(1994). While this play is billed as a comedy, it stands as a more serious piece of theatre interwoven with great comic and dramatic twists. Wendy Miller, who plays Ophelia with both delicacy and strength, takes the audience on a journey through her mind, often stealing some of Hamlet’s most treasured lines, as she questions and explores her identity, the treatment of women throughout the ages and searches for the true meaning of the word “virgin”.
Buoyed by her relationship with her maid, played with compelling melodrama by Jessica Harper, Ophelia conducts open conversations with all the characters around her including a tender hearted Horatio, played subtly and precisely by James Chapman. Her anxiety rises and falls throughout the drama but she is truly challenged by a narcissistic Hamlet, played energetically and with aplomb by Lachlan Bone. In seeking answers to her plight Ophelia is further educated by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who lighten her load as they parody Tweedle dee and Tweedle dum from Alice in Wonderland.
Although at times some of Ophelia’s speeches sound cliché and dated, the inclusion of Shakespeare’s prose, albeit turned on its head, rescues the dialogue and enlivens the plot. Paul Russell as Polonius in particular stands out as a reminder of how powerful an actor with stage presence and an ability to deliver Shakespearian lines can be. There are also some wonderful surprises, one of the highlights being Bea Moncrieff as the Queen castigating her son Hamlet for his harsh judgement of her.
This is a thought provoking play for both men and women alike and comes at an interesting time when debates about the equality of and respect for women often seem to disappear from sight.
The Director Annie Bilton has been brave in putting on a play which tampers with Shakespeare’s Hamlet but it is well worth the journey. If you are a Shakespeare fan Ophelia Thinks Harder may make you rethink his portrayal of women in general, and if not it is a good entrée to exploring his work.
Review by Gina McDonald (4 October 2012)
Ophelia Thinks Harder was produced by Newcastle Theatre Company and ran 29th September - 13th October 2012.