by Michelle Tan and Natalie Hennedige
Cake Theatrical Productions
The Esplanade: The Studios
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

Cake Theatrical Productions' latest outing is an interesting feminist take on Shakespeare's great tragedy. Co-playwrights Michelle Tan and Natalie Hennedige give us a meta-theatrical reconstruction of the play which allows us to see things through the eyes of Ophelia, its often-overlooked heroine. Indeed, it is in some ways reminiscent of Stoppard's absurdist tragicomedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, shedding light on a character we rarely get to engage with.

In a nod to the play-within-a-play construct of Hamlet, the narrative is framed as a rehearsal of the actual play featuring Hamlet as an auteur and Ophelia as an actor. Jo Kukathas's Ophelia, who remains onstage throughout, kicks things off by making dense monologues about plunging into water, alluding to her character's tragic end by drowning. Indeed, the production makes many cheeky references to the idea of swimming: Ophelia dons a swimming cap, Thomas Pang's Hamlet emerges in a pair of goggles and the only notable piece of furniture on stage is a lifeguard's chair, perched above a raised platform.

Photo Credit: Cake Theatrical Productions

This is a mature Ophelia swirling with thoughts and desires, one who is deliberately contrasted with Hamlet, who is presented as a cocky, younger man who enjoys nothing more than having himself in the spotlight and dictating orders to others. The actors frequently break the fourth wall and two members of the crew appear several times to wield props and create effects.

Pang, who has taken the local stage by storm since his debut in Tribes just a year ago, is captivating in his physicality and displays a chameleon-like ability to snap between the comically absurd and intensely dramatic. In a memorable sequence, he orders a bemused stage hand to spray his bare torso with water and launches into Hamlet's "too, too sullied flesh" soliloquy, writhing sensuously. Stage veteran Kukathas is also in top form, filling her scenes with a vigour and passion that keeps one's eyes riveted on her.

There is a crackling power to the exchanges between the pair with Hamlet always getting the upper hand despite Ophelia's attempts to assert her presence. In a role-reversal sequence, Hamlet washes clothes in a frilly dress while Ophelia takes on the guise of the soldier, riding valiantly into war. When she returns home, triumphant from battle, she is cruelly derided by him. In another scene, Ophelia tries to recite the iconic "To be or not to be" soliloquy but is unable to: those words remain Hamlet's and Hamlet's alone. She remains, always, in the shadows - a fact underscored by her dull shapeless clothes in contrast to his gratuitous displays of flash and flesh.

Photo Credit: Jake Yam/Lime Pixels, Esplanade

Over and over again, the play drives home the point that Ophelia is ultimately a pawn in the world of men. Despite her zest, energy and inner vitality (so brilliantly embodied by Kukathas), she is continually robbed of her agency and there is ultimately no escaping her watery end. The lighting design by Andy Lim and sound design by Philip Tan augment Hennedige's sharply executed production which transitions smoothly between comedy and tragedy and lightness and heaviness.

Cake have crafted an intelligent and gripping retelling of the Hamlet story that gives us the chance to consider its themes afresh. Ophelia may not be able to avoid her destiny but we are finally able to see her as a vivid creature in her own light and it is a vision that is both rich and sobering. 

The Crystalwords score: 3/5


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