When adapting a well known work of theatre, there is always a certain level of risk, not only are you creating something to be judged in it’s own right, but also by it’s connection to the earlier work.
Gertrude – The Cry, is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet by south London playwright Howard Barker, and it becomes clear upon entering the theatre that this reimagining is a very different animal.
The play opens with the eponymous Gertrude and her lover Claudius loudly plotting se and murder over the sleeping form of her husband king Hamlet.
This plotting swiftly escalates as Gertrude mounts the slumbering king while Claudius proceeds to poison him, following which the treacherous pair go on to have sex on top of the writhing form of King Hamlet.
The scene is incredibly powerful, emotionally charged in a way I have rarely seen onstage, the stark contrast of the lovers cries combined with the last struggles of a dying man both alluring and unwatchable in equal measure.
Alas the very intensity of this scene serves to undermine the proceeding performance, as nothing that follows can hope to match the rawness of the opening sequence.
Barker is a playwright who almost prides himself on producing plays that are uncomfortable to watch, when interviewed by The Guardian he said: “A good play puts the audience through a certain ordeal… I’m not interested in entertainment.”
Those words certainly ring true for Gertrude, which seems determined to manically shift between the uncomfortable and the interminable.
Barker’s reimagining of the character of Gertrude, played by Izabella Urbanowicz, as a powerful and sexual woman is a marked contrast to the shy and retiring character of Shakespeare’s original.
She prowls around the stage almost shuddering with barely contained mania, switching between hushed tones and howled curses. Though powerful to behold, there seems to be a certain lack of depth which gives the impression of being slightly forced.
Claudius, played by Alexander Hulme, by contrast seemed so understated that he ended up being overshadowed by the larger than life performances surrounding him, his roles as the object of Gertrude’s desires rendering him almost one-note.
Prince Hamlet, played by Jamie Hutchins, has also been remodelled by Barker with the suggestion that his feigned madness in Hamlet may actually be true madness.
He is possessed with a perpetual urgency, like that of a child who is desperately trying to explain something it finds greatly important to a disinterested audience, or a man in the grip of serious brain-freeze.
The role of Hamlet’s grandmother Isola, played by Liza Keast, another character whose motivations seemed difficult to pin down.
She is seemingly envious of Gertrude’s trysts, along with her own past indiscretions, yet she counsels Claudius to keep his distance from the mad queen.
Keast plays Isola with a sense of gentle senility and disinterest, which makes it all the harder to discover where her true loyalties lie.
There seemed to be little or no substance to the performer’s roles, with some characters seeming central to the narrative and others seeming utterly superfluous.
The two clearest examples of this were the characters of Albert and Ragusa, played by David Zachary and LJ Reeves, whose roles within the story seemed at best confused and at worst negligible.
Albert, a friend of the young Prince Hamlet and admirer of Gertrude, seems trapped in a state of manic happiness, while Ragusa, Prince Hamlet’s grudging partner, seems to flit on and offstage with a quiet bemusement.
The character of Cascan, played by Stephen Oswald, was very most inrtuiging to watch, his subtle obsession with Gertrude slowly turning him from aloof and etiquette minded servant into an attempted murderer.
Oswald commanding stage presence and his exploration of the characters more machiavellian motivations combine to create an unsettling yet sympathetic character.
Taken as a whole, Gertrude’s combination of sex, death and profanity felt oddly hollow, as though there was a key theme that was missed somewhere, the message lost in favour of shock value.
While Gertrude wasn’t entirely to my taste, that has more to do with the source material than the performance itself, Barker is known to be a divisive playwright and I find myself on the opposite side of the divide.
Gertrude will run at Theatre N16 at The Bedford, Balham, until the 30th of June.
All images courtesy of Roy Tan.