From the couch mum looked over at me and said “Would you like to watch Hamlet?” Hamlet being Zeffirelli’s 1990 film with Mel Gibson in the titular role.
We watch Helena Bonham-Carter give us a perfectly weird and tortured Ophelia. But my mother asks “why is she mad now?” and then later “Is she dead? Why did she kill herself?”
Truthfully, I couldn’t give her a definitive reason. I said something like “Shakespeare is open to interpretation, mum… and Hamlet doesn’t love her anymore… or he does love her, but he’s knee-deep in exposing his father’s murderer by this point…” I trailed off.
The fact is, Ophelia, like a good handful of Shakespeare’s women, is underwritten. Her madness and eventual suicide are inexplicable; it’s as though there’s a whole scene missing.
But Katie Mitchell is looking into it. The eminent British theatre director, now based mainly in Germany, has launched a brand new stage play at Berlin’s Schaubühne called Ophelia’s Zimmer. Mitchell, the playwright Alice Birch, and designer Chloe Lamford have torn down a wall at Elsinore Castle inviting us to peer inside Ophelia’s bedroom.
Strictly adhering to the original plot of Hamlet, the team are taking no liberties when deciding what goes on inside that private space. Nothing is invented, the purpose is interrogation. This refocusing of Shakespeare’s lens to zoom in on the mysteries still surrounding some of his lesser female characters is important work.
All too often I have heard the refrain “I think she’s secretly much cleverer and more empowered than we give her credit for.” Katie Mitchell is prizing open the mine shaft, a portal to a deeper dimension, where we can begin to expose their stories and invest their lives with real meaning.
It is often argued that Shakespeare gave the best expeditions into the human spirit to the likes of Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, Iago, Othello, Richard II, the Henrys etc. But more recently, British theatre has found itself on the crest of a wave, casting actresses in the major male roles. Currently, you can see Michelle Terry as Henry V at Regents Park and Glenda Jackson as King Lear at The Old Vic. Last year, Maxine Peak played Hamlet for the Royal Exchange in Manchester and, before that, Harriet Walter led all-female casts of Julius Caesar and Henry IV.
But while these developments in casting are great news, women playing men is solving just one aspect of the problem. The women are still underwritten. Will this gender blind casting lead to a shift at a more root level? Will writers and directors hear Katie Mitchell cry the charge and gain a similar momentum in reimagining our classical texts? Will adaptations begin to investigate the underwritten women?
The men are already at it: Falstaff appears in several operas; there’s Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead; Howard Barkers’ Seven Lears; Chris Lambert’s Edmund, Son of Gloucester; multiple works by Tim Crouch with the likes of Malvolio and Caliban at their centre. Comparable plays, by women about women, are so far lacking. And arguably much more necessary.
Why does Isabella, having fought for her chastity throughout the duration of Measure For Measure, have nothing more to say – not a single line – when, in the final scene, she is betrothed to Angelo? Is there not more to know about Lady Anne and why she submits to and marries Richard III, her husband’s murderer? What does Lady Katherine see in Henry V?
Perhaps the greatest gift Shakespeare left us was the hunt itself. The myriad extensions of his work that are still to be created. An exciting prospect, wouldn’t you say?