Confronting the 'to be or not to be' question

Jo Kukathas (right),who plays the titular role in Ophelia, with Thomas Pang (left) as Hamlet.
Jo Kukathas (right),who plays the titular role in Ophelia, with Thomas Pang (left) as Hamlet.PHOTO: CAKE THEATRICAL PRODUCTIONS

Men dictate Ophelia's fate in Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet.

Diminished by their whims, the death of her father leads her to her own destruction.

But Cake Theatrical Productions' Ophelia plucks the character out of the shadows and restores to her the agency that was robbed from her in the original play.

As a character, Ophelia forms the show's very centre, "the engine, the heart, soul and mind of the piece", says writer and director Natalie Hennedige.

The 40-year-old says: "This play wants more for her. This play wants for her to strut and fret much more upon the stage, putting her under fire to test her mettle, to present her human and flawed.

"This piece asks for her to articulate her own version of the 'to be or not to be' speech, encapsulated in the twin metaphors of swimming and drowning."

In Shakespeare's play, Ophelia is a near-powerless slip of a character, coddled and overwhelmed by her father and brother, and bound for the arms of future husband, Hamlet.

But how can a sensitive, loving, imaginative, hopeful spirit live in this world? How strong does she need to be? For how long?

I'm trying to find this Ophelia.

JO KUKATHAS, who plays the titular role in Ophelia, with Thomas Pang as Hamlet

When her father is killed by Hamlet, the tragedy tips her into madness. She kills herself, drowning in a stream filled with flowers.

But in Cake's production, she rises from the rubble of her misery, even though this play, too, ends in death.

Hennedige says: "In the original, Ophelia's grief at the loss of her father takes her to the very edge of sanity.

"But in our version, she comes back from that despair, for a while. What follows after the storm of personal turmoil is a certain clarity and strength. She is able to articulate that she intends to leave Hamlet. She grows in stature, leads and makes unflinching choices for herself."

Ophelia is an older woman played by Jo Kukathas, 52, up against a younger Hamlet, played by Thomas Pang, 25.

These were deliberate casting choices, says Hennedige. "We wanted her to experience a wider range, from youthfulness to a maturity that comes from years of struggle and life experience."

The show's setting is the rehearsal of a play, with Hamlet as the director and Ophelia the actor; a dynamic that allows some of the complexities inherent in the pair's relationship - defined by passion as much as violence - to be explored.

Kukathas has been getting into the role by reading the works of such writers as Virginia Woolf, Sarah Kane and Sylvia Path, whose female characters embody both vulnerability and turmoil.

The actress says: "Cake's text has created new possibilities for her to live. It demands that she lives.

"But how can a sensitive, loving, imaginative, hopeful spirit live in this world? How strong does she need to be? For how long? I'm trying to find this Ophelia.

"The Great Girl, the one who keeps trying and fighting and struggling to be all that she can be in our modern world, the question that confronts her is whether to be or not to be. This is the question that confronts us all."

Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2016, with the headline 'Confronting the 'to be or not to be' question'. Print Edition | Subscribe