Gertrude – The Cry by Howard Barker is a radical reimagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet – and radical is an understatement. Barker’s text focuses on Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, who is almost always forgotten in favour of romanticising Ophelia’s death or is categorised as simply a hypersexual, unrestrained woman. Barker’s text certainly draws inspiration from the latter.
Barker’s Gertrude is vivacious, she is charming and she is in control. Yet, however socially progressive and feminist this may seem, all of Gertrude’s qualities are hinged upon her sexuality. The audience are taken upon her search for sexual pleasure, her spiritual satisfaction and her gratification. Hamlet is transformed from a play of intense retrospection on life, death, and religion, into the liberation of Gertrude’s sexuality. But is that all? For I wonder, does Gertrude’s strutting the length of the stage in a leather mini skirt release her from the bonds of misogyny, or tie these bonds even tighter, restricting her to merely a sex symbol? Izabella Urbanowicz as Gertrude offers a professional physicality and confident command of the stage. Although there is a stark lack of passion between Gertrude and Claudius (Alexander Hulme), Urbanowicz possesses the grace and durability to perform in this titular role.
The stage itself is important. Set up in traverse, it is reminiscent of a catwalk, with the audience sitting on either side along its length. It evokes the important theme of clothing and the female body; Gertrude becomes a spectacle, a sight to be regarded with fascination and, all too often, disdain.
And, of course, one cannot overlook the protagonist of Shakespeare’s original: Hamlet. Jamie Hutchins as Hamlet brings a certain comedy to the classic role. Although Shakespeare’s original is a tragedy of indecision, Hutchins brings out Hamlet’s potential humour; Hamlet talks himself and his family into circles with his interminable speeches, unable to mourn his father fully and therefore unable to move on. He is trapped within his own mind. Although Hamlet’s situation is a sombre one, there is also an immaturity to him; he almost regresses to an infantile state, especially in his interactions with his mother. Hutchins, perhaps not the most varied of actors, does bring forth this overlooked aspect of Hamlet.
Barker introduces a new female figure, Regusa, who is frankly absurd. She enters, startlingly similar to Ophelia in a white lace-trimmed dress and flaming red hair. She is silent, standing behind the principal characters, unheard, unwanted and unloved. Clearly exhibiting a lack of emotional attachement to Hamlet, Regusa turns into a Doc Marten-clad avenging force, targeting the whole royal family. It is a sharp character arc with little realism or connection with the audience.
Overall, the play seems to struggle with finding genuine depth to its female characters. Hamlet’s internal struggle is made light of; Gertrude’s butler, Cascan, is the omniscient, witty chorus figure; and Claudius is a smitten schoolboy, pining after Gertrude. These male figures have substance and plot-driving motivations that the female figures – no matter how “sexually liberated” – do not. Nevertheless, Gertrude – The Cry is a wholly original take on perhaps the most famous play in British culture. And, although it falls into tropes at times, it is still a cold, fresh breath of air based on a classic that has the potential to become stale.
Gertrude – The Cry is playing at Theatre N16 until 30 June. For more information and tickets, see the Theatre N16 website. Photo: Roy Tan