Having a Stab at Ophelia
New Zealand Herald, 13 June 2003





By LINDA HERRICK arts editor

There should be a health warning attached to the role of Ophelia in Michael Hurst's charged-up production of Hamlet at the Maidment Theatre. Poor Ophelia, rejected and abused by her lover, and confused by the machinations of her father Polonius, hurtles into a mad scene which involves horrific self-mutilation; the instrument a large pair of scissors. The scene is genuinely upsetting and unsettling.

"Yes, I slashed myself last night," says Anna Hewlett, who plays Ophelia, rubbing her arms and examining the rainbow of bruises and cuts. "Some nights I come off the mad scene crying. It's the blood and the scissors. Gripping those scissors some nights gives me the shakes. It's emotionally draining."


Anna Hewlett finds playing Ophelia in Hamlet physically and emotionally draining.

It's not just the scissors and the insanity. The earlier nunnery scene, when Hurst, who plays Hamlet as well as directing, grabs Ophelia and orders her out of the secular world, is gripping, literally. Hence the bruises. "I bruise easily," says Hewlett, "but you've got to be hardcore in this play."

If you haven't caught this production of Hamlet, time is running out, with the Maidment season ending tomorrow night. Word has it that it has been attracting return audiences, a rare phenomenon in the often apathetic Auckland theatre scene.

With an almost uniformly excellent cast and a production which has evolved through its three-week run, this sleek, dark Hamlet seems "shockingly new", said Herald critic Peter Calder, who thought Hewlett's Ophelia "heart-rending . . . excellent".

Hewlett, 27, says she never knows exactly what's going to happen onstage each night. "Last night was such a good show. We really connected with the audience. I came offstage buzzing. Every night I go on is different. Michael is so spontaneous and so 'in the moment'. We are not robots, you don't press the 'play' button and go on stage. You have to be in the moment and go with it."

The six school matinees have been "like rock concerts", she laughs. "The kids are loving it, clapping at the end of random scenes, egging each other on. I think they can relate to it: the problems with the parents, the love thing, the music . . . "

Hewlett has worked with Hurst just once before--last year--coming late into the Auckland Theatre Company's production of The Rocky Horror Show to replace Sophia Hawthorne's Janet, before touring the show to Wellington.

"I had never read Hamlet, I'd just seen two of the films, with Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh. Michael doesn't audition, he casts by seeing qualities in people and he said, 'I'm probably doing Hamlet next year. Would you like to be Ophelia?' I didn't believe him. Some months later I was at a party and I asked him, and he was like, 'Yeah, of course'."

It's hard to believe that this self-assured woman was "very shy" at school when she grew up in Kerikeri. But she did indulge in a sort of movie-world fantasy.

"I used to love watching the old movies, the Grace Kelly thing, the glamour thing. I was very quiet, very shy, at school; a bit silly, then I started doing speech and drama classes and came out of my shell.

"But I was always the type of person who hated photos and would pull faces at the camera, put a mask on. Acting--it's all pretence. Being shy and being on stage, it doesn't make sense, does it? But I love it, all the different characters. I'd like to be known as versatile--and busy."

Since graduating from Toi Whakaari Drama School in Wellington at the end of 1999, Hewlett has worked as steadily as most young actors can in New Zealand. In 2000 Miranda Harcourt directed her in Much Ado About Nothing at Downstage in Wellington, and she had a role as one of the witches in Macbeth in the Centrepoint in Palmerston North. Since moving to Auckland two years ago she's been able to solidify, with roles in ATC productions of Hair and Noises Off. The SiLo theatre has also been a key venue for some of Hewlett's work, with this reviewer noting of her role in last October's Restless Ecstasy trilogy that her work seemed "effortless". She recently played Vivian (the victim) to Jennifer Ward-Lealand's Marlene.

She giggles as she recalls her statutory foray into Shortland Street. "I was Dr Lucy Rhodes," she laughs, "one of the cows who came in, stirred things up, then left."

She positively honks at the query about work on The Lord of the Rings in 2001 appearing on her CV. "I was overseas for four months and when I got back to Wellington I was asked to check out The Lord of the Rings. I'm a bit embarrassed to have that on my CV--it was great fun but I was only there for the last two weeks of shooting. I'm a 'Gondorian refugee' in the last film. I'll be like, 'Look, mum, that's me'."

In fact, it's only lately that her parents have realised her dreams of being an actor were more than "just a phase".

"It wasn't until they came to see me act in my first year at drama school that they realised, 'Aaah, so this is what she wants to do'. It took them that long. I think they thought it was just a phase, not that I would try to make a living out of it."

Of course, they've been to see Hamlet--her father's first Shakespeare--and "loved it", she says.

There'll doubtless be a big wrap party for the Hamlet team tomorrow night, but Hewlett has work commitments the next day, shooting a short film directed by Belinda Schmidt. She's hooking up with Hurst again for an Auckland Festival pantomime which remains a semi-secret and involves "rarking up the kids". One suspects, from the twinkle in her eye, that after the emotional battering of Ophelia, Hewlett will rather enjoy a spot of silliness again.




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