Arts on the verge of extinction is undoubtedly the theme of Steven Berkoff's imposing new work, The Secret Love Life of Ophelia. The skill of composing a memorable letter, and the challenge of holding an audience whilst almost bereft of props are certainly two crafts in severe decline.
Yet Berkoff's production is one of such daring in contemporary terms that the relief when you realise he's pulled it off is palpable. And what better venue to display unfashionable virtues than the King's Head. So what if it could use a lick of paint here and there? Better that than the buckets of whitewash used to cover the cracks in many a West End debacle.
Tables adorned with romantic red drapes and summer flowers greet the audience. On stage, however, Freya Bosworth (Ophelia) and Martin Hodgson (Hamlet) make use of a solitary black chair each. Berkoff's verse drama is intended to relate the events leading up to Ophelia's death and Hamlet's exile. Shakespeare's Hamlet raged in turmoil and confusions of denial due to his father's death. However, Berkoff is determined to introduce us to a more Keatsian character, steeped in the language of lusty love.
Nor is this a mere recital. Hodgson's early outpourings are lent an impassioned deliverance against Bosworth's dreamy meditations. Images of falconry, of untamed birds are given wild and fanciful flight. The notion of Keats, and his ill-fated letters of unconsummated desire to Fanny Brawne, begins to resurface as Ophelia's almost indecent teasing raises the stakes. Fecund imagery abounds, and you sense that Berkoff is enjoying the tempestuous chase almost as much as the panting lovers themselves. Occasionally the lady doth indeed protest too much, and it does take a while for any references to Shakespeare's text to click in.
But it's Berkoff's love of the letter writing concept itself, the sending and receiving, that emerges so strikingly. That quickening of the heart on recognising a lover's calligraphy, and the trembling hand that impatiently grasps at the secret messages within. You can hardly imagine anyone's Collected Emails being published by Faber in the decades to come.
Both Hodgson and Bosworth give performances of considerable force. Combining the camp tragedy of silent movie stars with fiery delivery, they've helped Berkoff accomplish something quite out of the ordinary. Dapper in evening dress and ghostly make-up (voices from the grave?) their movements take on a ballet-like elegance as they manipulate the meagre props like mute dance partners. Berkoff's Hamlet is a sensual lad, untroubled by the schemings of court or warring nations. Until, that is, Shakespeare's events contrive to torment him otherwise.
The fact that the King's Head, in Islington of all places, should be fund-strapped is a grim governmental indictment. Yet like the works it presents, the theatre can be seen as embodying the qualities needed for survival in a breakneck culture. Dignity, respect for tradition and the bold advancement of the daring few.