Company: Hormone Imbalance
Production: Ophelia
: Melissa Murray
Director: Sue Dunderdale
Cast: (included) Sara Hardy, Madeleine McNamara, Siobhan Lennon, Sandy Lester, Stephanie Pugsley,

Sara Harris on Ophelia by Melissa Murray

‘The cast included the original group, plus one or two others – unfortunately I can’t recall their names, nor the name of the designer (though I think his first name was Paul).

Rehearsals for Ophelia were well structured under Sue Dunderdale’s guidance – though rehearsal time was often disrupted by other commitments – notably a tour of the Hormone Imbalance revue to the Vrouwenfestival at the Melkweg in Amsterdam in September 1979.

Ophelia premiered at Action Space Drill Hall on Thursday 4th October 1979 and ran for two weeks. The production was part of a season in honour of ‘Gay Pride 79’ (it being a decade since the famous Stonewall uprising of 1969). Julie Parker, then theatre programmer at Action Space, was a strong supporter of Hormone Imbalance. I remember the core group spending several hours with Julie in her office working on a grant submission so that we could tour Ophelia. Julie was a wizard at finding the right phrase.

The production was ambitious – and I think we pulled it off in the main – especially given the constraints of time and budget. The design in particular was striking, it had a black and white theme, even our hair cuts were stylised in a heightened manner including dyed blond markings or stripes. The production combined Elizabethan and futurist elements.

I think it was favourably reviewed but I only have one scrap of paper torn from a Time Out magazine to refer to, so I quote it in full:

‘As someone who has recently been drawn into the magnetic but thorny ways of verse drama, I can only welcome a fellow-writer treading the same path. Melissa Murray’s Ophelia (Action Space) inverts and rewrites Shakespeare’s Hamlet, making it the story of the women. Gertrude is Queen (sans Claudius), Ophelia a spirited woman who runs away with her maidservant, rather than accede to an arranged marriage [with Hamlet] whereby her machinatory father Polonius hopes to secure his own political power. This inversion is tackled with great poise, the verse now astringent, now ironic, now fulsome, showing how flexible the iambic line can be. However, the play falls down in its underdeveloped sub-plot – Ophelia finding her future as a lesbian among some rebels with an unspecified ‘cause’. The contemporary ideas and the weak prose idiom sit ill on the richness of the rest; but the play is still a fascinating enterprise. The all-female production goes for black and white clarity, perhaps somewhat short on passion, but admirable in its concentration.’ (Michelene Victor, October 1979, Time Out)

I think that Sue Dunderdale did a magnificent job with this fresh-off-the-typewriter script – and with a group of women who were often in emotional turmoil. It was a huge responsibility to be a ‘card-carrying’ lesbian in those days. The working conditions were always haphazard and insecure, and to be ‘out’ professionally did nothing for ones on-going career. Sue Dunderdale was an experienced director. She cut through much (if not all) of the emotional baggage and pushed each of us to produce our best.

We all had our moments but Stephanie Pugsley cracked under the strain and couldn’t continue to the end of the season, someone else had to take her place. Unfortunately I can’t remember her name but she did a fine job at very short notice.

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