First performed in 2001, The Secret Love Life of Ophelia is Steven Berkoff’s attempt to breathe depth and intimacy into Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Ophelia. Retelling the story of the young paramours almost 400 years after the Bard’s original, Berkoff’s reiteration of their love story investigates how their relationship ebbed and flowed in between the scenes of Hamlet; the small moments and asides, during which their love blossomed. Now, with consent from Berkoff himself, the Greenwich theatre has love story once more, this time moving into the digital world in response to the current COVID-19 crisis; it may be a bit rough around the edges, but the beautiful story of love and loss still rings true.
Told structurally as a series of “video messages” that the couple send each other, The Secret Love Life of Ophelia essentially tells the same story as the original play, albeit with a new perspective – instead of the focus being on loss and revenge, its of passion and love. Happening concurrently to the main narrative of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Berkoff’s play intertwines those horrific events with tender moments of love: their awkward initial interactions, the vivacity of their sexual attraction, the earnest commitments they make to each other. Complete with Berkoff’s wonderful realisation of the Bard’s blank verse and lucid language, the production is Hamlet by way of Romeo and Juliet.
The stand-out feature of this digital adaption is its choice of casting: instead of having one Hamlet and one Ophelia, director James Haddrell instead opts to draw from an ensemble of 40 young performers; each time we revisit either lover, they are bought to life by a new actor. As a result, each video message features a new portrayal of the one of the famous duo, instilling each ‘letter’ with a fresh and nuanced performance.
It’s a daring but fruitful choice, as this smorgasbord of lovers allows for some truly excellent interpretations to shine through. Indeed, at a time where opportunities are drying up, especially for incipient young performers, this choice of casting is a welcome breath of fresh air, featuring and celebrating the stars of tomorrow. Moreover, with the play culminating with a monologue from the legendary Helen Mirren – there is something undeniably special with how the production utilises her unquestionable talent and celebrity to highlight those currently unknown – it’s sending the elevator back down, in the best way possible.
However, equally, this directorial vision is a double-edged sword: precisely because the actors change each and every message, the portrayal of the two characters are widely inconsistent, with there ostensibly being a ‘new’ on Hamlet or Ophelia every scene; although they are the same people followed through out, the variety of performances offered makes it hard to internalise this fact.
Simply put, it’s difficult to become invested in the love story because it never seems like we’re following only one couple, but rather 20 somewhat similar ones. Furthermore, the letters differ so much in terms of length, pacing becomes an issue – one message could be 10 minutes and the next only 30 seconds; the cut between them never ceases to be jarring.
Nevertheless, The Secret Love Life of Ophelia is a beautiful and smart retelling of one of theatre’s most famous stories, foregrounding the impeccable performances of an ensemble of brilliant actors. It may not be the most polished version of the story out there, but when its packing this much talent, you won’t want to look anywhere else.
The Secret Love Life of Ophelia will premiere on YouTube at 7.30pm on Fri 31 July 2020 and will then be available to watch for free until Friday 14 August.