What happens if you cut the role of Horatio from Hamlet and give most of his lines to Ophelia?
This is the main idea behind a production of Hamlet being staged by Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Theatre (Dramaten) in Stockholm in January. It will be Dramaten’s contribution to global commemorations of Shakespeare 400.
Director Jenny Andreasson previously focused her creative attentions on plays written by historically neglected female dramatists such as Françoise Sagan and Lillian Hellman.
A sympathy for neglected women playwrights has translated easily into fellow-feeling for Ophelia, the marginalised woman of Elsinore whose destiny as a character is to be obedient, then exploited, then mad, then dead.
In a Q&A on Dramaten’s website Andreasson has described how she first got to grips with the play by realising that she could make something new out of Ophelia and Hamlet’s relationship, avoiding the usual cliché of Ophelia as victim to create a more equal relationship.
Whereas other directors, most recently Lyndsey Turner at the Barbican, have sought to make Ophelia less of a doormat by tweaking her character within the framework of the given text, this production will take the bold step of cutting Hamlet’s best friend Horatio and giving the bulk of his lines to Ophelia so that she effectively becomes his closest associate as well as lover.
A recent newspaper report on the start of rehearsals gave a taste of the finished result. The actors in the principal roles, Hamadi Khemiri as Hamlet and Nina Zanjani as Ophelia, read aloud from what was described as act one, scene one of the new production.
Translated back into English from the production’s Swedish they share the following exchange:
I think I saw him yesternight.
You saw my father?
Season your admiration for a while
With an attent ear till I may deliver
This marvel to you.
For God’s love, let me hear!
Jenny Andreasson said in the same article that this reallocation of lines from Horatio to Ophelia had produced interesting results:
“In the scenes where she appears innocent, she instead turns out to be a very aware person. So when I began adapting the play a different Hamlet and a different Ophelia emerged.”
The travelling players who visit Elsinore will be a feminist theatre group, which suggests some rewriting or adaptation of The Mousetrap.
Part of Hamlet’s struggle will be about deciding what kind of a man he wants to be.
So far, so interesting.
Although no further specifics about the production have been provided so far ahead of its premiere in Stockholm on 16 January, it is possible to extrapolate some of the possibilities that the director’s basic premise makes possible.
In general terms, having Ophelia as Hamlet’s confidante and lover in the early part of the play must mean that their eventual falling out – Hamlet will eventually kill her father – will appear to have an even greater effect on them both because the intensity and closeness of their relationship will be portrayed on stage rather than merely described.
This also means that in the later part of the play, after Ophelia’s death, Hamlet’s isolation will be starker as he will have no Horatio to confide in, his final moments all the bleaker as no one will be there to comfort him.
Finally an Ophelia that a 21st century audience can really identify with?
I will be travelling to Stockholm in February to see three performances of the production and will report back on what actually happens.
Update: 22 December 2015
In a recent Dramaten press release, Jenny Andreasson makes these additional comments on her version of the play:
I see Hamlet and Ophelia as reflections of each other, more closely bound to each other than normal. Despite different starting points they do bear similarities throughout the story in their complex relationships with their fathers, their attempts at revolt and madness. Even the relationship between Queen Gertrude and the new king Claudius looks different than normal, since they share power, at least to begin with…
Update: 8 January 2016
The entire run of this production has been cancelled due to the director being ill. Nothing has been confirmed regarding a possible future continuation of the project.