The Secret Love Life of Ophelia (Review): Fractal Theatre

Iambic pentameter (aka blank verse) is known for being the rhythm that most closely approximates everyday speech in English. Most of us meet it for the first time in the plays of Shakespeare. With its repetitive de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM spring on each line of the verse, despite – or perhaps because it’s closely associated with Shakespeare – IP often gets a bad working over in the hands of inexperienced actors. In a misguided attempt to make it sound more ‘real,’ all the insistence and momentum in the rhythm can get flattened out and choked. Perhaps even more unfortunately, it can be spoken in a kind of reverential ‘poetic’ voice which casts the content and the speaker into some kind of other world divorced from reality. IP is full of traps for the young player.

And now, here’s playwright Steven Berkoff appropriating the old master’s metric verse form for  The Secret Love Life of Ophelia, currently playing at !Metro Arts Studio in Brisbane.  I started by mentioning IP because one of the real delights of this Fractal Theatre production, directed by Brenna-Lee Cooney, is that the two actors in the production, Eugene Gilfedder (Hamlet) and Mary Eggleston (Ophelia) handle the verse so well; it’s earthy, muscular, lyrical, downright dirty (but in a soft-porn kind of way) often delicate, and always affecting. Neither actor is the slightest bit disarmed by the text, in fact they chew it up and spit it out – as utterly befits this 21st century, retro-Elizabethan, poetic psycho-drama. Phew!  Hoorah for them and hoorah for Berkoff; it’s great to hear such tough verse done proud.

Like Tom Stoppard‘s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, this play provides another back-story to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Berkoff concentrates on the progression of Ophelia and Hamlet’s affair via a series of letters between them – from awkward and tentative through bodice-ripping lust, frustration, rage and violence. Eggleston and Gilfedder apply a deft touch to Berkoff’s text; they find and play the nuances – comic and dramatic – to good effect.  In a clever twist, and who would have guessed it, Berkoff has Ophelia contrive a deliberate role-play which sees Hamlet spurn her (‘to a nunnery’ etc.) but it’s all to put the watching dogs (Polonius and the King) off the scent of their relationship. Oh, the tangled webs we weave …

This is no alternative Hamlet with any kind of happy resolution, however; it ends just as badly for everyone.  The progress of off-stage events is charted in the letters – I found myself referring constantly to where we were in the ‘real’ plot line. When, inevitably news of Ophelia’s death comes, it is delivered on the projection screen in extreme close up. The mouth and lips and disembodied voice of Gertrude (Helen Howard) deliver the beautiful and sad ‘There is a willow grows aslant a brook …’ monologue to the riveted, listening Hamlet. The man who, famously, could not make up his mind, appears here even more clearly as Berkoff sets Hamlet’s failure of nerve beside a newly-revealed passion for Ophelia, and both against a background of corruption, deceit and intrigue.

Berkoff’s use of the back-story as the central conceit is a clever, if not particularly original device, and I think it’s a tad long – the text, not the production. The strength of Fractal’s production lies in the performances of Gilfedder and Eggleston, and in Cooney’s imaginative and crisp direction. She piles on the tension as she brings the two lovers closer and closer in a dance of desire and frustration – but they never touch. And she keeps everything moving at a brisk pace – all too easy to get bogged down in this stuff if you’re not careful. The action is accompanied live – with terrific timing and sympatico – by Imogen Gilfedder-Cooney on violin and synthesizer (are they still called that?). Fragments from George Crumb’s haunting score for Black Angels are used as musical accompaniment, perhaps more than is necessary in a piece where such muscular spoken text needs very little support or distraction. Freddy Komp (visual and audio design) uses overhead projections to provide abstract references that accompany fleeting mood shifts and tempo breaks in the action. Whilst the visual world of the production, from costumes and lighting through to the trimmings on the projection screen, all evoke a vaguely Pre-Raphaelite romance, this production has a decidedly jarring, nervous, contemporary sensibility.

It’s good to have Fractal back in town.

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