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Let’s Talk About SEX! An Interview with Chris Hislop, director of ‘Gertrude – The Cry’.

Gertrude There was a director. Where? There on the stair. Chris Hislop himself. Photograph: Courtesy of the interviewee.

Gertrude – The Cry is a controversial play about Hamlet’s mother, with lots of sex, sex, and sex. So how will Chris Hislop penetrate it for its fringe revival? 

Disclaimer: This interview contains content of a sexually explicit nature, bad language, and suspect puns.

I have always known Chris Hislop as a PR. In fact, that’s how I met him, and we’ve since become good friends outside of our professional shenanigans. However, I’ve not known Hislop long enough to known him as a director. After almost 3 years since he directed his last show, he’s returned to direct Gertrude – The Cry, putting on this “comeback” at the burgeoning Theatre N16 in Balham, where he also works as a press officer. 

Hislop’s directorial return will take on Howard Baker’s controversial play Gertrude – The Cry, which focuses on the sex drive of Hamlet’s mother in the moments directly after killing Hamlet’s father. Although lauded by some critics, Gertrude – The Cry has been derided in both London and New York as needlessly explicit and verbose, making Hislop’s decision to revive the play on the fringe a bold one. But with a play that verges on pornographic, and with seemingly misplaced feminist overtures, is Hislop the man for the job? 

Very Attractive Middle-Aged Women and Other Theatrical Devices 

“If something’s too clear or too concise, it bores the shit out of me. I want something that’s going to be difficult to direct, where I have to sit down with the actors and unpick it in rehearsals.”

Gertrude

There was a director. Where? There on the stair. Chris Hislop himself. Photograph: Courtesy of Flavia Fraser-Cannon.

I met up with Hislop in the bar of The Bedford, the ex-Magistrates court-cum-drinking hole that is also home to Theatre N16, on the press night of The Rules of Inflation. We catch up, order a burger and a beer each, and finish dinner off with a hearty interview. I was a bit anxious that the background noise would swamp the sound on my mid-to-low price Dictaphone, but Hislop assures me that he can talk loud enough to override the ambient din of merrymaking: something he tells me I should know by now.

Of course, the first thing I wanted to ask was why Gertrude – The Cry? 

“Well, I studied Barker at university. I read Gertrude – The Cry as part of that, and I really fucking liked it,” Hislop opens, wiping ketchup from his beard. “[Barker] tries very hard to write these very interesting plays and consistently ends up writing shows about a very attractive middle-aged woman who gets her kit off all the time.” 

But it’s not the sexy older ladies that interests Hislop (although, he’d be the first to admit that sexy older ladies certainly are an interest): it’s Barker’s attempt at feminism. Although not entirely successful, Hislop reckons that Gertrude – The Cry has the potential to open up an entire realm of cerebral titillation beyond its X-rated credentials. 

“He’s trying to write a play about a powerful female character who’s in charge of her sexuality, and in charge of her life, and then proceeds to objectify her every 30 seconds. It literally opens with her being complicit in the murder of her husband and then fucking over his dead body. So, congratulations, Barker. You’ve done a great job being a feminist. Let’s debase this woman over her husband’s corpse.” 

Hislop, as always, is on his most unapologetic and irreverent best/worst behaviour: a cocksure charm that is a benchmark of both his intelligence and his charisma. Hislop has never been one to shy away from a challenge, and Gertrude – The Cry, seeming a failure of intent, is the stuff that’s perfect for Hislop to sink his talons into. 

“I like that [Gertrude – The Cry is] messy. I like messy plays. I’ve always directed messy plays. If something’s too clear or too concise, it bores the shit out of me. I want something that’s going to be difficult to direct, where I have to sit down with the actors and unpick it in rehearsals.” 

Hislop’s interest in Gertrude – The Cry is also about exploring the subject of women in a way that is complex and edifying, and getting out of Gertrude – The Cry something that is provocative and can ellicit conversation. 

“I want to do a play that empowers its lead female character, and shows herself in her sexuality that isn’t, ‘Oh God, I’m getting old,’ or, ‘Ooh, I’m a pretty young girl: I’ll fuck anything that moves’. There’s more to it than that. Female sexuality is a complicated, fascinating, engrossing, subject and I really want to talk about that.’ 

Is Feminism for the Birds? 

“I don’t think any bloke should feel that he can’t direct a woman, or that any woman can’t direct a man, or [anyone] can’t direct a play about issues about men or woman.”

Gertrude

Izabella Urbanowicz will play titular Gertrude. Photograph: Courtesy of Roy Tan

Regardless of Gertrude – The Cry’s criticisms and shortcomings, Hislop still sees this as a play that embodies female issues. Of course, how appropriate and effective is it going to be to have a red-blooded German cis white male in his late twenties direct something about women? As always, Hislop reveals that he’s far more than the sum of his parts (pun intended) and throws in some interesting and intelligent spanners into the works. 

“Yes, I want to do a feminist play [but] I don’t like to describe myself as a feminist,” says Hislop. 

I gasp, coyly and indignantly. 

“Oh, shut up,” he barks. 

What ensues is a rather interesting, although complex, discussion about the semantics and meaning of the word “feminist”, and why he doesn’t quite agree with it. What on the face of things is a comment that could easily be used to dismiss Hislop as a boorish chauvinist actually leads to piercing deeper into the psyche of someone who has a genuine interest and concern for female issues, and is intent on finding something intelligent and revealing in Gertrude – The Cry that others may miss or dismiss.

But for those not privy to mine and Hislops’ discussion, what exactly is he doing to ensure that his Gertrude – The Cry doesn’t end up pornographic and misogynistic?

“Those are two words you could use to describe me!” Hislop jokes, taking a puff on his electronic cigarette.

“But all I can do is go in with the best of intentions. That’s all you can do: have the best of intentions, research, and think ahead. I try to build the cast and the room with people who can rise to the occasion. My Assistant Director is purposefully younger than me and female. I purposefully want someone who can tell me if I’m going too far, or not going far enough. I’ve spoken to all the cast that have been cast so far about the fact that I want this to be a very open rehearsal process where all the subjects are discursive – where we can talk about things – and if someone feels uncomfortable or weird, they can say so and it’s not a problem. There’s plenty of nudity in the play, and I’ve said to all the actors [that] none of this is going to be enforced, and [will be] only if it feels comfortable, correct, and accurate, and it needs to be something we can talk about how it works and why it works.”

Interestingly, whilst female sexuality is the (hard)core of Gertrude – The Cry, Hislop thinks that the plays also explores male sexuality and sex in general.

“I don’t think there’s enough plays about sex. A lot sort of allude to it and talk about it generally and say, ‘Oh, isn’t it complicated? Isn’t it difficult? Sex is a weird thing, isn’t it? Don’t we all look funny when we do it?’ Talking about sexuality in a show that is entirely focused on sexuality means that I can explore huge ranges of issues and concepts. There are four male characters. One is a young boy who is clearly so prudishly repressed that his sexuality is almost non-existent. One is a rather virile twenty-something. One is a slightly older man who is clearly starting to feel that his sexual vigour is dipping. And one is an old man who is almost entirely asexual. I get to explore male sexuality as well, and look at all the aspects there that we can play with. But [Gertrude – The Cry’s] lead is female. It’s very much a show about female sexuality and I really want to explore all the elements there that can be explored. I want to see what we can do about bringing some stuff to the fore, and do it quite candidly, quite brutally, being quite direct about it.”

“[Gertrude – The Cry] interests me, and therefore I want to direct it. I hope that’s enough. I’m doing everything I can to ensure it isn’t too couched in my own bilious pig-shit along the way.”

gertrude

Official promotional artwork for ‘Gertrude – The Cry’. Photograph: Courtesy of Theatre N16.

But still, I ask Hislop if he thinks that Gertrude – The Cry, being supposedly feminist, should be left to a female director to tackle?

“I don’t think it matters at all,” Hislop rails. “I don’t think it’s a matter of women have to direct women…or that men have to direct men, or any of that. It’s open. [Gertrude – The Cry] interests me, and therefore I want to direct it. I hope that’s enough. I’m doing everything I can to ensure it isn’t too couched in my own bilious pig-shit along the way. I know I’m hardly a poster child for pure PC relationships…not at all. It makes sense that it interests me and therefore I want to tackle it, and I try to fill the room with other forces to make sure it’s not too much my own mind-set that’s being driven. I don’t think any bloke should feel that he can’t direct a woman, or that any woman can’t direct a man, or [anyone] can’t direct a play about issues about men or woman. That’s not the point. I rather we just get along, man.” He smiles.

I, for one, am convinced and confident about Hislop’s ability and intentions for Gertrude – The Cry. But then, knowing him like I do, I probably excuse him more than those who aren’t as au fait with his inglorious demeanour as I am. None the less, it’s clear that Hislop’s goal for Gertrude – The Cry is not just to be some novelty flesh-fest that borders on cynical, sexist, and uninspired; especially as afterwards we talk further about his plans for abstract and surreal video work and to ensure the text, infamous for being portentously rambling, isn’t the visual focus of the play.

But the proof will ultimately be in the eating (out) of the pudding, and regardless of whether Hislop can pull it off or not (another intended pun), Gertrude – The Cry will certainly a bold and brassy revival and a most anticipated return for the director.

Gertrude – The Cry will run at Theatre N16, London, SW12 9HD, 12 – 30 June 2016. Tickets are £14 (concessions available). To book, visit www.theatren16.co.uk.

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