Ophelia Doesn't Live Here Anymore

Patricia Maunder

CHAMBER MADE OPERA: A surprsing lack of operatic elements aside, this was a provocative and exciting performance based on Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Ophelia Doesn't Live Here Anymore
Chamber Made Opera has long been at the cutting edge of opera, but Ophelia Doesn't Live Here Anymore is particularly surprising because it isn't an opera. The company has collaborated with Bell Shakespeare's development arm, Mind's Eye, for this new work, so a strong sense of theatre is to be expected, but there's very little of what defines opera: singing (and what little there is is pre-recorded). Indeed, singing seems to be the least of the many arts on display, including movement, video, music and sound design.

Once assumptions of experiencing something operatic are gone, however, this exciting mix of expression, presented in the unusually intimate environment of a private home, becomes a thrilling ride into the unexpected. The familiar story of Hamlet is the audience's guide through a taught, somewhat abstract, sometimes unnerving exploration of dangerous relationships and mental disintegration. Director Daniel Schlusser has picked through the subtext and lacunae of Shakespeare's play, and honed in on Hamlet (Schlusser), his mother Gertrude (dancer Lily Paskas) and in particular his girlfriend Ophelia (Karen Sibbing).

Unfortunately I didn't really see the video work that formed the prologue to Ophelia Doesn't Live Here Anymore, as I was at the back of a scrum gathered around the entrance to the room in which it was projected. So, I'll leave assessment of that to others with a better view. From there, the audience is ushered into the darkened, relatively large kitchen/living area of this very stylish Armadale home. Through a wall of glass we see the play's first, unspoken scene unfold in the backyard: a woman suspended by a complex, uncomfortable looking network of rope from a tree made vivid by projected patterns; another, dressed in a white gown, repeatedly throwing herself in a lap pool.

The action soon moves inside, where the audience is seated. The lights come up, and the play begins in earnest with a fascinating temporal shift between the three characters. Domestic surveillance and security, violence, sexual perversion and mental disorder are key themes, as Hamlet's maternal obsession and Ophelia's monomaniacal horticultural distraction unfold in a dramatic space dominated by a long, stage-like kitchen bench.

All three performers are intense. They rely not so much on dialogue (a significant chunk of which is a highly staged exchange between Hamlet and Ophelia from Shakespeare's text) as looks, symbolic props (such as animal skulls) and actions (Ophelia's tearful chopping of a great pile of onions). These actions are often violent, and have a frisson of real danger when kitchen appliances, glass and large, sharp knives are involved. Even as this highly stylised performance unfolds, the intimate, genuinely domestic setting fights against it, creating a powerful sense of unease.

Judiciously employed projections, particularly videos of rapidly sped-up plant growth, are stunning, while Darrin Verhagen's musical soundscape is a wonderfully atmospheric wash of brooding mechanical rhythms, harsh noise and, yes, a bit of singing. Paskas loosely mimes a short Diamanda Galas-like aria, while a small female choir briefly appears at the beginning (it's possible they were miked but I suspect their singing was also pre-recorded).

Unexpected, provocative, exciting ... and the smell of onions and fennel lingers in the mind's nose for hours.

Rating: 4

Chamber Made Opera and Bell Shakespeare present
Ophelia Doesn't Live Here Anymore
Director: Daniel Schlusser
Composer/sound designer: Darrin Verhagen
Set and costume designer: Marg Howell
Video: Richard Grant
Principal cast: Daniel Schlusser, Karen Sibbing, Lily Paskas

Private home, Melbourne
November 24–26

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Patricia Maunder is a Melbourne writer.