Theatre N16, London – until 30 June 2016
Shakespeare’s women never get the attention they deserve, even the more interesting ones. The deranged, damaged and dynamic are often maligned and infrequently on stage. Margaret, Lady Percy, La Pucelle, and so on have moments of brilliance, but are then hushed, relegated in favour of men. Howard Barker rescues Hamlet’s Gertrude from Shakespeare’s sidelining in his 2002 play, Gertrude – The Cry, but his depiction is hardly a favourable one. Though he places Hamlet’s mother at the forefront of his narrative, he paints her as an unfeeling, sex-crazed creature in a fetid nest of similarly awful people. Overt sexual acts and poetic, obscure language are plentiful, but this actually a rather dull and overly long script is hard to digest.
Director Chris Hislop utilises the irregularly-shaped Theatre N16 incredibly well with a small traverse stage, placing the action in the laps of the front row and evocative projections at one end. Felicity Reid’s set is white, with a minimalistic plinth functioning as various pieces of furniture and locations. Clean and stark, it suits the characters’ emotional detachment from everything other than their own ambition.
Liza Keast as Isola, Queen Mother to the dead King Hamlet and his brother Claudius (Alexander Hulme), and servant Cascan (Stephen Oswald) are supporting characters but give leading performances. Oswald in particular finds an honesty and depth not present in the desperation of the others. Isabella Urbanowicz as the titular Gertrude has a magnetic presence, but lacks chemistry with Hulme’s Claudius – though this is due to Barker’s script, not a lack of ability on the actors’ part.
The text is the production’s week point. At least half an hour too long, the dense, awkward language says little. Self-absorbed, maniacally driven characters who lack empathy and dimension rant and fuck, wash, rinse, repeat. Little actually happens, as if Barker didn’t really have a concrete idea on how to go about paralleling Shakespeare’s Hamlet from Gertrude’s perspective. Though Hislop’s choice to withhold an interval is the right one in terms of pace and energy, two hours with little linguistic variation and plot progression is an endurance test for both actors and audience.
Whilst Barker’s attempt to reconfigure Gertrude is admirable, this female-led play is hardly feminist. Her sexuality is her downfall rather than her freedom, and the men in her life entrap as much as they do in Shakespeare’s original story. Ragusa (LJ Reeves), the parallel to Ophelia, is essentially a sex slave purchased for Hamlet who is eventually driven mad by his infantile whinging and the abundance of malfunction in the household. Rather than presenting an alternative, progressive view on female sexuality, it comes across as crass and misunderstood.
This is a good production of a rarely-staged play, but it’s clear why it’s so obscure. Most interesting from an academic perspective, Barker’s Gertrude – The Cry isn’t a particularly good text.
Gertrude – The Cry runs through 30 June.
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