DDF Review: ‘Ophelia is Also Dead’

By Rachel E. Tavaler

It is an ambitious feat to put new words into the mouths of some of the most famous and well-established characters in all of English literature. As a self-confessed Hamlet superfan, I entered the Mark Hillery Arts Centre sceptical of Aliya Gilmore’s Ophelia is also Dead, having flashbacks to A Level English coursework which asked students to write a new monologue for Titania from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. What I was greeted with, however, was a thoughtful, moving and beautifully written piece that is both intimately connected with Shakespeare’s work and a strong piece of theatre in its own right.


as the absurdist logic of the piece gradually made itself known, Gilmore won me over.

Gilmore’s play follows Ophelia (Fionna Monk) as she gradually reveals the story of her life. At the start, Gilmore’s choice to include twenty-first century references is incredibly jarring – it is difficult to allow Gilmore to insist that the same man who, in the seventeenth century, first asked “to be or not to be?”, also collects Pokemon cards. However, as the absurdist logic of the piece gradually made itself known, Gilmore won me over.

In Ophelia’s imagined fantasy of domestic bliss, Hamlet suggests he and Ophelia take their children on holiday to France to see the Battle of Agincourt, to which Ophelia replies that they are too late, as the battle occurred in the 1400’s. Gilmore seems to be suggesting that the characters have always existed, in a kind of Stoppard-esque purgatory (Gilmore’s play, indeed, owes more than just its title to Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) and that they will continue to exist long past the days of Disneyland and Black Swan that Gilmore refers to. Indeed, this modern twist allows for brilliant lines which found their comedy through juxtaposition, such as “the prince of Denmark is making me a mixtape”. Furthermore, it is a stroke of genius to characterise Hamlet as an “indie sadboy”, who asks “have you heard of The Smiths?” (a stereotype I’m sure many Durham students in the audience will recognise!). ’s (who played Horatio, as well as a kind of understudy Hamlet whilst the ‘real’ Hamlet was “doing a scene” elsewhere in the world of the play) impression of Morrissey is humorous, although perhaps a little over the top.

this modern twist allows for brilliant lines which found their comedy through juxtaposition

Monk manages to strike a balance between making Ophelia likeable (a trait I have rarely seen in other onstage Ophelias), ethereal and vulnerable. Monk’s stage presence is undeniable – never leaving the stage, she carries the entire play, including an impressive final sequence in which she soliloquises for an impressive amount of time.

The supporting characters are well cast: making for a classically handsome and brooding Hamlet, Joe Pape’s Laertes striking a balance between the hot-headed yet protective brother of Ophelia. Furthermore, there is an interesting use of doubling by casting Layla Chowdhury as both Hamlet’s mother and the ghost of Ophelia’s mother (akin to other productions, such as the 2008 RSC Hamlet starring David Tennant, where both the ghost of Hamlet’s father and Claudius were played by the same actor).

The action of the play takes place in tandem with Shakespeare’s play – other characters, offstage in Ophelia is also Dead, are implied to be onstage elsewhere in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Admittedly, there does not seem much to be gained by an audience member who does not know Hamlet, and still a lot to be missed if one has only a basic knowledge of the play. Details such as Ophelia is also Dead beginning with the same lines as Hamlet –“who’s there?” – I imagine would not be recognised as holding this significance by the majority of audience members.


there does not seem much to be gained by an audience member who does not know Hamlet

Gilmore manages to use the medium of Shakespeare’s characters to explore themes of death, love, morality, what it means to be a woman, and theatre as an art form in a sensitive, clever, and thought-provoking way, whilst avoiding clichés, retaining humour and rounding off the production with a beautifully moving ending as tragic as that of Hamlet.

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