The Secret Love Life of Ophelia at Greenwich Theatre Online
The internet has been a lifeline throughout troubling times, and Steven Berkoff’s novel yet poetic production fits seamlessly into a world of growing digital demands. Created entirely for an online audience, The Secret Love Life of Ophelia seeks to explore the unwritten relationship between the Hamlet and Ophelia of Shakespeare’s mournful tale.
The often unrecognised love affair is spread across a cast of 40, and a back and forth stream of video “letters” reveals Berkoff’s intimate imagining of what transpired between them. Performing in their own homes and clothes leaves plenty of space in which to play, allowing us to wholly absorb a carefully crafted dialogue. Passionate excerpts, heightened by the limited “stage” time for each actor, vividly conjure the melodic richness that constitutes Shakespearean style.
Consistent references to “dreaming” denote a youthful naivety, spiritedly reflected in the fresh faces of up-and-coming performers. Though a changeable cast may not appeal to some, in its potential prevention of character progression, such a diversity of interpretations brings nuance, and succeeds in showing time passing with a love growing so fast it cannot be contained.
The inventive use of evolving emojis brings modern familiarity to the tale, universalising their experience despite its age and origin. Perhaps the most devastatingly relatable reference is the faltering battery life on Ophelia’s device, which flashes red as their romance hurtles towards its fatal end. The whimsically broken emoji heart beside Hamlet’s contact name not only symbolises the prevalence of technology in how we form and regard contemporary relationships but also adds to the tragedy of a romance ridiculed by onlookers. Momentum is maintained with their unfiltered desire, leading to a pervasive sadness for the life that fails them, as they struggle to understand why something so pure is forbidden by the cruel limitations of status.
Berkoff’s version gives the story, and particularly Ophelia, the depth and autonomy deserved, in a romance often overshadowed by the tale of Hamlet himself. But Dame Helen Mirren eloquently reminds us of the dreadful end they must come to in a brief but raw description of Ophelia’s body in its “muddy death”.
Overall, the modern-day structure that is used to carry an Elizabethan romance is pleasantly, and at times humorously, engaging. The format continually evokes intrigue as we wonder who will appear next and what they might offer. Witty use of technological features takes some weight from the Shakespearean tongue, but also reminds us how we define relationships today, and of the difficulty of securing privacy in a loud and intrusive society.
However, the honesty witnessed is delightful, and though a multiplied cast might not allow the strongest bond between audience and character, the precise capturing of a first love’s sheer fervour cannot be denied in this collective, bittersweet narration.