Jennifer Theby Quinn in rehearsal as Ophelia in Make Hamlet
It’s delightfully disorienting. This Ophelia is such a…bitch. She rolls her eyes at Hamlet, mocks him, gives him disbelieving looks. She’s also kind of a…creepy sexpot. She does a weird striptease to “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” during her mad scene. And oh wonderful, wonderful, and then again, wonderful–someone has given her a lot of Hamlet’s lines! And yes, it works, at least for me, works in a visceral, truthful way. Ophelia stuffing rocks in her pockets and getting in the brook lamenting: What a piece of work is man! I love it. Finally, a Ophelia that behaves like a human woman.
“I knew there were rocks in the pocket. I knew that. I was gonna say, ‘Hey, this is a suicide. Don’t be silly.’ To me that was the only way to give these women any agency. Because the truth is, the way they are written, they don’t. I think the way the women in Hamlet are written is actually kind of dumb. How can we give them agency without completely just going against the text and for me it was to make them guilty, make them more guilty, make them even more sensual and culpable. When Ophelia is playing with flowers and falls into the river, then she’s an idiot. When she stands on the riverbank and weighs herself down and then goes into the water, she’s a woman who knows what she wants.”
Yes, I know it’s my own shortcoming. I know that my inability to sympathize with Shakespeare’s Ophelia is just my own stubborn insistence on clinging to my twenty-first century worldview about women. But the thing is, I’m very fond of my twenty-first century worldview about women. It has taken me a long time to cultivate it—twenty-one centuries, to be exact–and it’s just much more, well, fun to think of women as humans and not property. And trying to mentally squint through Ophelia cowering around Elsinore is a drag, and it takes me out of the play. It’s just me. My bad.
“She loves Hamlet and she sees that everyone is turning against Hamlet in her world. Meanwhile Hamlet is turning against her. Then he kills her father. When she goes mad the subject of her grief is clearly split between her father and Hamlet. She’s grieving for the loss of her father and her lover at the same time. Some of her songs are about a dead person and some of them are about a lover and she’s schizophrenically jumping between them. So I had her sing this song: My Heart Belongs to Daddy. This song has always haunted me. This is the second time I’ve used it in an adaptation. I used it in an adaptation of The Little Mermaid I did. After seeing this show, my mom asked me, ‘Lucy, do you have some sort of a Daddy complex?’ And I said, ‘Mom, it’s not me, it’s western literature.'”
When I was in drama school, we all had to work on monologues from Hamlet. Some of the really ambitious guys did “To be or not to be.” One particularly talented guy in my class did “Now might I do it pat.” (Who’s Pat? we all joked! Drama school is so fun!) One of the guys had an absolutely thrilling breakthrough on “How all occasions.” I still think about his performance every single time I see or hear those words. One guy did “Too too solid flesh” and cried. Like, tears.
Every girl did “Oh what a noble mind is here o’erthrown.” It sucked. And I don’t mean the honey of his music vows, you know what I’m saying?
“I wanted her to be yelling and angry during her mad scene because we saw it as a family drama—and there’s something so embarrassing about the woman who goes crazy. It’s like the same with the woman who gets drunk. It’s never cool. It can be funny when a guy gets really drunk but it’s always embarrassing when a woman does. So there’s this dread of a young woman coming on stage and yelling and doing sexual things and embarrassing everyone. I always heard those songs of hers as yelled instead of sung.”
I believe it’s important to know Shakespeare’s original intentions. I believe Shakespeare is demanding and requires intellectual rigor and an understanding of rhetoric and history and vocabulary that goes beyond a superficial reading of the text. Like you, maybe, I, too, find it a little jarring to hear a young theatre director like Lucy say, “I think the way Shakespeare wrote this is dumb.” I know to many people that might sound like silly youth throwing an opinion around. But I believe that theatre productions in general, and Shakespeare productions particularly, have got to avoid being boring at all costs. It’s next to impossible to get a butt in a seat these days and when we do, we all need to make sure the butt isn’t bored to death, or it will be ten times harder to get that butt in another seat someday. We who make theatre owe this to each other. One big way Shakespeare is boring is if it is not relevant or relatable to the audience’s lived experience today. It is relevant and relatable to the small group of enthusiasts who direct and produce and act in the plays. To get beyond that, and to make sure Shakespeare still belongs to everyone, we need directors like Lucy who are willing to look at Shakespeare and say, “this feels dumb to me,” and to do the hard, risky, imaginative work of presenting Shakespeare that will resonate with lots of different kinds of people living different kinds of lives that Shakespeare, for all his genius, couldn’t imagine. She came up with an Ophelia that was someone a contemporary woman like me could easily recognize, one that was more than a plot device or an archetype or a pawn or a symbol of innocence. It wasn’t boring. I didn’t have to fast forward her parts. I didn’t have to write an apology for Shakespeare in my head. I could just watch it and feel it and care like I’m supposed to. And you know what? It’s still Shakespeare’s Ophelia. It’s still what he wrote. She’s still a young, confused woman who is used by other people in an appalling way, goes mad and kills herself. But in Make Hamlet she does the things she does on purpose because she wants to do them.
“So there’s this question. Has Ophelia had sex with Hamlet? And for a modern interpretation it’s just—duh.”
Make Hamlet, adapted and directed by Lucille Cashion, was produced in St. Louis, MO in April 2014. It was presented by Equally Represented Arts, whose stated mission is “to put its life at stake to create and perform that which is impossible to name, impossible to categorize.” All quotes are from an interview conducted by me with Lucille Cashion May 26, 2014.