Amy Mulholland’s production kicks off with Barney Elliott’s historic 16mm film of the 1940 collapse of the Tacoma Suspension Bridge, familiar from school physics lessons. The resonance-induced large amplitude flexings of this high-wired structure, rocked by external forces, admirably reflected Berkoff’s view that Hamlet and Ophelia’s love was corrupted by the elements around it. The establishment, with Claudius at its head, and Polonius its willing tool, work to thwart and repress the lovers, with all the deadening powers of convention.
The idea of exploring this relationship is an intriguing one. In Shakespeare’s play, the veracity of Hamlet’s profession of love for Ophelia at her graveside is hard to disentangle from his highly wrought return, and a back story is of some interest. However, unlike Shakespeare’s resonant themes of gender and power, Berkoff the writer has cast himself – well, almost as a grubby flasher/voyeur, and opens his mack to us.
A modern take should add something – even if it’s only a contemporary edginess. But Berkoff’s cod-Shakespearean epistolatory style – a historic hangover from the play’s beginnings as a contribution to The Erotic Review in the style of a famous writer - nose-dives shortly after take off, rapidly becoming tedious.
Berkoff’s aim to capture ‘how it feels to be in love’ descends into a sub-Romeo and Juliet erotic pant. Listening to the increasingly bawdy verses, it’s hard not to raise a smile ( ‘I fill your cup with Hamlet’s ecstacy’ ) – even at times a belly laugh – as some audiences at other venues reportedly have done.
Delivering such over-written lines which teeter between pathos and bathos, passion and porn, Andrew Johnson’s Hamlet and Amy McGavin’s Ophelia do well enough. There is a power in Ophelia’s ‘I have lost everything’ after Polonius’ death and Hamlet’s exile, and in Hamlet’s rage at the world’s inability to ‘see beneath’.
It is not the actors, but Berkoff’s text which lacks revelation. It reduces these two complex, enigmatic dramatic characters to mere adolescent lust, which though just about believeable, delivers no more than a footnote to character, rather than offering a new, striking contemporary insight which adds depth and eloquence.
As Hamlet himself said: ‘The play’s the thing…’ but this play captures neither conscience nor imagination – only disappointment at a real opportunity missed.