If you are like me, then for the past five years, you have been glued to the TV every Monday night as the phenomenon that is “Game of Thrones” unfolds its story of war, treachery and lust in front of you. Chief among the ‘baddies’ is one Cersei Lannister, mother to the king and having an incestuous relationship with her brother as she manipulates those around her to achieve her desires. However, in reality, Cersei is an amateur when compared to another royal mother and there is a chance to find out more as Howard Barker’s play Gertrude – The Cry opens at Theatre N16 in Balham.
This is a reworking of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ and looks at the story from the point of view of Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude (Izabella Urbanowicz). It starts with the murder of Gertrude’s husband by her and her lover Claudius (Alexander Hulme) – brother of the king and the subsequent act of lovemaking that results in a mad orgasmic “cry” from Gertrude. After the lovemaking has ended, Gertrude turns, as she always does, to her faithful servant Cascan (Stephen Oswald) to aid her and Claudius. Hamlet (Jamie Hutchins) enters and it is obvious that he is not the full ticket. His inability to mourn for his father and his rambling rants suggest that the new king may be slightly unhinged by the events around him. At the funeral, Gertrude behaves inappropriately with Claudius, seeming to shout to the world about their relationship, much to the consternation of Claudius’ mother Isola (Liza Keast) and the young and pretty potential bride for Hamlet, Ragusa (LJ Reeves). As time moves on Gertrude and Claudius continue their affair but something has changed and Gertrude no longer utters the “cry”, leaving Claudius to wonder what is going wrong. Meanwhile, in an attempt to save her one surviving son from Gertrude, Isola flatters the queen and suggests she have an affair with the young Albert, Duke of Mecklenburg (David Zachary), friend of Hamlet, former lover of Ragusa and now deeply infatuated with Gertrude. All of these sexual escapades are doing nothing to help Hamlet’s state of mind and as the young king becomes more demented and tortured, railing against his family’s lack of morals. As the story moves on, Gertrude sails through the events, moving the men in her life to do her bidding until eventually things come to a head and she finally faces her past as she travels to an unexpected and possibly unwelcome future.
Gertrude – The Cry is one of those plays that jumps out at the audience within seconds of starting. Believing it to be just a re-working of Hamlet, I was not prepared for the graphic opening scene but, I have to admit, as a way of grabbing my attention and holding on to it, it certainly worked. But, before the play itself, the show started as the audience took their seats with some highly stylized and sexualised images of women projected onto a wall at one end of the brilliantly white traverse stage – full credit to Designer Felicity Reid – with its two chairs at the other end. Director Chris Hislop has put together some fascinating images for the opening sequence, with some nice visual effects to keep them just on the right side of the censor (if we still had them in theatre). Indeed the direction throughout is fine and the play moves along at a pretty fair lick in its two hours running time. Covering a span of, I’m guessing around 9 to 11 months, an awful lot happens but Howard Barker’s script keeps everyone on track as to who is doing what to whom, even if you are not always 100% sure why they are doing it. For example, whilst I loved Isola, I never really understood if she liked or loathed Gertrude, possibly both in equal measure and her relationship with both her son and grandson was equally ambiguous. There didn’t seem to be too much maternal love in her put-downs of both – she told Hamlet he was “a prig, a prude, and a moralist” but at the same time she tried to protect her son from Gertrude’s influence. I have to say that Liza Keast played her beautifully, but rather like Ragusa and Alber,t I would have liked to know more about the character and her motivation.
Turning to Hamlet, I really loved Jamie Hutchins’ portrayal of the tortured Dane, trying to make sense of the world around him whilst despising everything he saw. Jamie drew out Hamlet’s rants with the right amount of emotion and confusion – especially on his highly expressive face – to really give the audience a sense of the boy’s issues. I also can’t move on without mentioning Stephen Oswald as Cascan, to my mind the most complicated character in the show. Stephen is a tall and well-built fellow who could easily have totally dominated the stage whenever he was on, yet somehow he managed to ‘shrink’ himself down when dealing with his betters. An observer and commentator of everything, Cascus is the perfect servant always there but never in the foreground but as the play goes on, it becomes apparent that his devotion to Gertrude is something more than just loyalty, and goes way beyond mere bonded obligations.
I can’t finish talking about the actors without mentioning Izabella Urbanowicz and Alexander Hulme who have been really well cast in their roles as Gertrude and Claudius for whom physicality and sexual freedom matter so much more than the rules of courtly behaviour. Both characters are complex, and I imagine Freud would have had a field day with them and both were brought to life in fine style by these talented actors.
Summing up then. Gertrude – the Cry is intense and emotional from the moment the lights go down until the final curtain calls. It is dark, though with some nice hints of comedy to break the mood slightly, and at times horrific – violent death is not a stranger in Denmark – but it is certainly a play that stays with you. Whether you can watch Hamlet again in the same light I wouldn’t like to say. Ultimately, Gertrude – the Cry is a well written powerful story. There is some nudity, lots of bad language and sexual references but at no times do these things feel as if they have been thrown into the mix purely to shock, they are ultimately a part of the whole. Strongly directed and acted and Gertrude – The Cry makes for an enjoyable if at times uncomfortable night at the theatre.
Review by Terry Eastham
Howard Barker’s shocking and risqué take on Hamlet has its first major London revival at Theatre N16 this summer since its premiere in 2002. Reinterpreting Shakespeare’s classic from the perspective of Hamlet’s mother, this is a striking exploration of female sexuality and emancipation – but also a punky, filthy analysis of lust. Gertrude will be directed by Chris Hislop, Theatre N16 press manager and renowned London theatre publicist, returning to his directing roots after a 3 year hiatus. Co-produced by LWL Investments and Entertainment ltd.
LWL Investments & Entertainment Ltd and Theatre N16 presents Howard Barkers reworking of Hamlet for Shakespeare 400.
Sun 12th – Thurs 30th June 7:30pm
(no fridays or saturdays)