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Stem Collective Interview – Ophelia: Madness (in blue)

We Know What We AreOphelia: Madness (in blue) is the creation of acclaimed composer Sergei Dreznin, and has been put together by Stem Collective, a professional and international group of artists and performance makers in the city of Bristol.

Ophelia: Madness (in blue) explores the story of Ophelia, examining her perspective and experience of her relationships with her brother Laertes, her father Polonius and her lover Hamlet. It is unlike any rendition of the character yet seen, creating a unique sensual and spiritual experience for audiences with a riveting musical score that combines elements of jazz, soul and classical music.  

Stem Collective Interview
Ophelia: Sandra Kassman (17th), Emily McDouall (18th)
Director: Lucy Dreznin
Producer: Molly Olivia Rodelli

What can you tell us about Ophelia: Madness (in blue)?

Sandra: It’s a boutique opera that tells the story of Shakespeare’s most mysterious and humble heroine.

Emily: It’s an intimate insight into the powerful yet beautiful inner workings of Ophelia’s true nature and desires.

Lucy: My father Sergei Dreznin composed this work in his native Russia in the 1980’s. It was then performed by a collective of singers in the cultural underground of Moscow. Quite a fascinating journey – from the capital of the Soviet Union to the UK stage! More importantly, though, it’s a crucial adaptation and passionate re-examination of one of the most underrated subplots and female characters respectfully in Shakespeare’s canon.

Molly: Shakespeare uses song as a conduit to give expression and power to Ophelia’s most private experiences. Sergei’s composition takes this a step further, by stringing together only the scenes in Hamlet that feature Ophelia, placing her at the centre of the story and setting the whole piece entirely to a blues-meets-jazz-meets-classical score. It’s very beautiful, bittersweet, intimate, and liminal.

What is Stem Collective?

Molly: Stem Collective is a new company of performance makers, all from different disciplines, and all passionate about creating work of the highest calibre and originality we can.

Sandra: Our emphasis is on meaningful storytelling and artistic diplomacy.
Lucy: Absolutely. In our first year of working together, we’ve involved many wonderful young artists from across the UK and Europe. Between us, our creative experience on and off stage is quite extraordinary, and that is all celebrated and recognised when we’re in a rehearsal room together.

Sandra Kassman as Ophelia
Sandra Kassman as Ophelia

Describe your production of Ophelia: Madness (in blue).

Molly: It’s about Ophelia’s inner world, her most private experiences, her memories, her fantasies. It’s a subject of vast depth. There’s a potent mix of just pure Shakespeare for the sake of it and all these rich themes we can find in a character like Ophelia, that are relevant as ever. When you abridge the main points of focus, I suppose it’s really about love, sex and death. Personal experiences within those areas. And of course, the existentialism that Hamlet is so famous for. I find Ophelia is as much a philosopher as Hamlet. She goes through her own feverish questioning of life in particular, her own life. Like Hamlet, she loses her parents, her father is taken from her, she is alone in the world. She has every incentive to question her world. And we are looking at grief and madness in real terms.

Lucy: Those real terms being human’s desire to love and be loved. And to establish meaningful and lasting connection with those whom we hold most dear.

Molly: Ophelia’s ‘madness’ is her shadow. It’s her sexuality and her passion and her darker nature finding voice and expression. Traditional interpretations of Hamlet show Ophelia losing her sanity, almost inexplicably so, and her will to live. Our Ophelia does not lose her mind. Instead, she finds peace and experiences self-realization through eternally loving those she has lost. All of the classic themes you have in ‘Hamlet’ are there in ‘Ophelia’, but because she is a young woman, when you look at these themes through her eyes they become softer, more sensual. With Hamlet these themes are given course by his fantasy of revenge. But with Ophelia they are given course by her love. All of this, set to music and you have ‘Ophelia: Madness (in blue)’!

Lucy: Pairing Shakespeare’s original verse with music empowers Ophelia and gives her and the male characters a chance to express themselves with a feverish honesty that is far less evident with just the verse on its own, or with the original text performed as a whole.

Sandra: It’s truly been a labour of love. To get the chance to be directed by Lucy has been wonderful. The material is dense, both musically and lyrically, so being guided through it by someone who has lived and breathed the material from its inception has been priceless. Every eye contact, extension of a hand and turn of a head serves a purpose.

Lucy: All experienced in just 45 minutes, and set to a gorgeous accompaniment from piano and cello.

Emily McDouall and Sandra Kassman, who have played Ophelia on different dates throughout the tour, portray the character quite differently. How so?

Lucy: Every role, in any piece, is there to be interpreted. A performer should absolutely have the freedom to do just that, and in so doing, render the character their own. This was fundamental to our rehearsal process.

Sandra: I think you could say that the core of the character is the same but the way Ophelia chooses to express herself differs the way Emily and I differ as people.

Molly: For me, Sandra’s portrayal of Ophelia is more classical, virtuous and innocent. She’s more overtly respectful towards the warnings of her father Polonius and brother Laertes, and Sandra plays her with a tender, emotional, childlike quality. Emily, on the other hand, portrays her as very sultry, flirtatious, and shrewd. She knows the game to play with Polonius and Laertes in order to escape their suspicions of her behaviour and personal conduct. She’s a bit of a wildcard, just like Hamlet.

Sandra: Having been a part of the production from the start, it felt really important to me that Emily shouldn’t feel restrained by the choices I made when we did the first run in November 2016 in Bristol. It’s been a wonderful collaboration and a fantastic opportunity to get the chance to collaborate with Emily to help her discover her own Ophelia.

Emily McDouall as Ophelia
Emily McDouall as Ophelia

Lucy: My job as director was to supervise that process of discovery, and not just for Sandra and Emily. We have two different Hamlets – Luke Roberts and Tom Manson – performing, and are now also working with our second Laertes since the production’s inception.

Molly: Emily and Luke’s portrayal of this couple that never was is as two self-induced orphans, exiles from their own families. When we did Bristol Shakespeare Festival and Sandra performed the role in St Pauls Church, the venue as a space with spiritual and personal subtext became a part of the character, to the point where it was almost site-specific. And again, when Emily performed the role in Manchester in The Met’s black box theatre space, surrounded by candlelight, the space fully contributed to her depiction. Both Sandra and Emily show Ophelia’s moments of waywardness, rebelliousness and sensuality equally well. And her love, too.

Lucy: No two interpretations of any of the characters have been alike. Each approach yields something fresh and that’s been extraordinary to facilitate.

What creative challenges have you had to overcome when touring the production?

Sandra: For me, it was crucial that final madness scene not feel like a cliché. Therefore it felt important to dig deep into what madness could mean for each of the characters, not just for Ophelia.

Molly: My project as the producer has been to tour the show as extensively as possible on a very fine budget. With cuts to the arts ongoing and funding for new productions nominal, this has definitely been a challenge! But ironically, this has never had any bearing over my determination to create this tour and get ‘Ophelia’ established on the festival circuit.

Lucy: Getting the humorous moments just right, and ensuring they weren’t just in there for the sake of providing moments of light relief from an otherwise dramatic piece. For this tour, we had two different casts for three different stagings in three separate tour venues to rehearse, in the space of four days. All challenging, and enormously enjoyable.

Molly: How the production has grown since our premiere in 2016 is unbelievable – we’ve established a collective, and brought in incredible new members of cast and crew. We were credited as one of Greater Manchester Fringes favourite shows when we took ‘Ophelia’ to The Met, Manchester, Timeout London have recently credited us as one of the top ten most exciting, “must see” shows in town during Camden Fringe and we’ve got two gigs lined up right in the heart of London’s West End (Covent Garden no less!). Challenges create strengths if you take them on right.

Why should theatregoers come along?

Emily: Our production isn’t just a dusting off of Hamlet from a different angle. It explores the timeless nature of love, relationships and grief through a timeless character.

Molly: This show is an experience. It’s an experience of passion, love, sensuality and music. It has Shakespeare’s powerful story and timeless language, but a fresh, contemporary portrayal of the characters.

Sandra: It’s a piece that stays with you for a long time after you leave the venue. The score is truly one of the best I’ve heard and it manages to bring new life to the immortal words of Shakespeare.

What’s next?

Lucy: We’ve plans to develop Ophelia and take it to schools. Plus a few other projects and ideas, all still in the pipeline. This tour has put confidence in our stride though, and we’re very excited to get working on the next Stem venture.

Ophelia: Madness (in blue)
Camden Fringe on August 17th and 18th. Venue is Swiss Church, Covent Garden.


  • Neil Cheesman

    First becoming involved in an online theatre business in 2005 and launching londontheatre1.com in September 2013. Neil writes reviews and news articles, and has interviewed over 150 actors and actresses from the West End, Broadway, film, television, and theatre. Follow Neil on Twitter @LondonTheatre1

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