A futile rage against the dominance of Hamlet



Cake Theatrical Productions Esplanade Presents: The Studios

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"Can I have some light please. I'm in shadow," Ophelia says to the unseen lighting manager.

This is one of many memorable lines from Cake Theatrical Productions' funny, determinedly feminist but still tragic reinter- pretation of Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Ironically, Ophelia (Jo Kukathas) remains overshadowed for most of the play that bears her name. It is the bipolar prince of Denmark (Thomas Pang) who controls the lights, sound and special effects, who directs Ophelia's story around that of his own mad crusade to avenge his father's death.

Staged as a rehearsal for a still-to- be-performed show, this meta-play is deliciously full of in-jokes. In the original Hamlet, the prince directed a drama to confirm his uncle was a murderer. His anal-retentive attention to detail in Shakespeare's script - "Do not saw the air too much with your hand thus" - is played out here in verbal and physical aggression towards Ophelia and the stage crew.

Shakespeare's Ophelia is a puppet manipulated by Hamlet's rages and her father's ambitions. Both relationships are explored in disturbing detail by director Natalie Hennedige and co-writer Michelle Tan.

Hamlet has her obey his every command on stage. He denies her coffee while sipping his own, makes her pout and thrust her hips out in sexual enticement and demands that she never ever changes - Shakespeare's Ophelia drowned in her youth.

This Ophelia calls to mind Tom Stoppard's absurd Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), where two minor characters in Hamlet seek and fail to find life outside the script. There are also shades of Twelve Ophelias by Caridad Svich (2004), where the drowned Ophelia rises out of the deadly pool to find new life and fulfilment.

In this Ophelia, the audience is plunged into the world of a woman grown mature and tired of the shenanigans of the still-childish Hamlet. Casting 50something Kukathas opposite 20something Pang drums home that point.

This is an Ophelia who seeks liberty through swimming lessons or going on dates with another man or even heading off to a revolutionary war. (Ophelia takes place in a white rehearsal space with peeling walls, a space that can become a battlefield or a river, thanks to Philip Tan's sound, Andy Lim's lighting and visual design by bgt studios and D.L.S.B.)

Yet every break for freedom ends with Ophelia, eyelashes fluttering, helplessly sucked back into the whirlpool of Hamlet's obsession.

The tragedy of the character is that Hamlet remains the focus of the play.

Costumes or lack of from David Lee are designed to draw the eye to his body. Ophelia, in swimming cap and shapeless dark clothing, is easily overlooked.

Assistant stage manager Bobo Sing and crew member Roshnie Pillay respond only to his commands, not Ophelia's desires. Kudos to both for providing the right touch of absurdity at critical moments by mopping up blood, offering props and waving a mop to mimic the ghost of Hamlet's father.

The balance of power in the Hamlet-Ophelia relationship begins to shift eventually but unevenly, as Ophelia oscillates between self- confident and malleable.

It is fun to watch the two switch traditional male and female roles - he washes the clothes in frills while she heads off to battle, he dons female underwear while she takes the sexually aggressive position - but seems more fan service than necessary.

Too often, as well, Ophelia claims deeds that the audience never sees her perform. Telling, not showing, is Shakespeare's style, but it is not as suitable for this play.

In the end, Ophelia is denied the famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy and she is denied release from a toxic relationship. Her only way out is to accept the lines and death scripted for her at the start.

Her freedom is in performing these without the overbearing gaze of a director. But it is difficult to see this as a triumph when it echoes the sad ending chosen by too many victims of domestic abuse.

  • Ophelia is sold out.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2016, with the headline 'A futile rage against the dominance of Hamlet'. Print Edition | Subscribe