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Gertrude The Cry (Theatre N16, London): Review

gertrude Corpses and copulation. Izabella Urbanowicz (left) and Alexander Hulme (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Roy Tan.

Gertrude – The Cry is a tit-bearing, knicker licking, dildo sucking, homicidal, necrophiliac, breast-feeding, baby-drowning hot mess.

Howard Barker rewrites Hamlet from the point of his mother in Gertrude – The Cry. Power corrupts, and sexual power corrupts absolutely, as the mistress of Denmark’s life and men fall around her ears.

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Leatherette. Izabella Urbanowicz as Gertrude in ‘Gertrude – The Cry’. Photograph: Courtesy of Roy Tan.

Writing

When a play opens with the lead character shouting “Fuck me!” and then getting shagged over the convulsing body of her freshly murdered husband, you know this isn’t going to be a merry, subtle, or light reworking of Shakespeare’s Danish masterpiece. Howard Barker’s Gertrude – The Cry is renowned as a difficult and shocking piece that has divided critics and audiences alike since 2002. None the less, it hasn’t stopped director Chris Hislop and Theatre N16 from staging a fringe revival, even though its difficulty would turn many away from doing such a thing. But what is it that is so inviting in this seemingly crass and sensational take on Hamlet? Well, my interview with Hislop might help to shed some light on the issue. But, despite the borderline offensive and overbearing writing, and Gertrude – The Cry embodying the sex drive of an adolescent rabbit, among the triteness and the scandal Barker finds a strangely complex look at sexuality and sexual power that’s highly intelligent and cerebrally provocative.

Gertrude is a woman with immense sexual allure, meaning she gets what she wants when she wants it. Barker’s men flail helplessly around her to appease and “win” her. But the kicker is that Gertrude is someone who knows she has this power but doesn’t know what she ultimately wants from exploiting it, or indeed, what she wants from her life. What’s her role and desire as mother? What is it about Hamlet’s oppressive and incessant prudish moralising that strikes a rotten core in Gertrude? What threats to Gertrude’s status do her mother in law and young Ragusa pose? When you reach these explorations, Gertrude – The Cry suddenly becomes something more than a sexy play with jiggling titties and rampant kink: it’s a grubby, unashamed, and intense look at sexuality and ambition. Barker hits on unexpected truths among the unfathomable and outrageous countless copulations and power plays, laying bare some interesting insight into our base instincts and the human condition.

But Barker’s writing is far from perfect. First of all, it’s not subtle, and a case for it being misogynistic is one that is difficult to argue against. It fairly certainly fails the Bechdel test, and the women are constantly objectified. They’d be nothing more than fleshy sex toys but for Barker’s attempt at looking at control, power, and desire through the medium of sex. Whilst this shouldn’t be excused, if you do manage to bite your lip, there is a sizable nugget of visceral and thought-provoking stuff in Gertrude – The Cry, and that’s what keeps you allured and engaged, though uncomfortable. Furthermore, Barker’s reputation for being needlessly wordy holds here too. It’s like that whenever Barker gets a good idea he gets too excited and throws everything he possibly can to explore that. You can’t say Barker isn’t comprehensive, but its not great for pacing causing Gertrude – The Cry to be a gauntlet of portentous endurance at times. In order for it to be snappier and more merciful of its audience, Gertrude – The Cry could certainly do with being at least half and hour shorter as some passages and sequences really drag on. Ironically, Shakespeare said it best in Hamlet: “brevity is the soul of wit.”

There’s plenty to praise in Barker’s writing as there is to criticise, though. There are some canny nods to Shakespeare, especially Barker’s loquacious witticisms via Cascan as a take on the standard Shakespearean fool. Then there’s Barker’s wonderful toying of frank and blunt language that gives filth and coarseness an odd sense of poetry about them: it’s a playful and biting text for sure. Deeply rooted themes, such as the central theme of “the cry”, constantly crop up and brilliantly twist and explore narrative in strange and multilayered ways. What flies in the face of decency here – necrophilia, adult breastfeeding, fellatio at a funeral, and infanticide to name just a handful of present cardinal sins – is remarkedly constrained and isn’t the constant onslaught of moral outrage that you might have expected. Their appearance, when they happen, jolts and pricks your attention as well as your sensibilities, and it’s effect is palpable and rewarding, if not the stuff of Daily Mail nightmares. The same goes for Barker’s use of language. There are plenty of C and F bombs, but it’s far from a Blitzkrieg of bad language, because otherwise Gertrude – The Cry’s would lose its uncouth impact. The result is that Barker isn’t a mere ranting pornographer, but instead a highly intelligent filth-monger.

Gertrude – The Cry is an unsettling and unapologetic play that is fundamentally flawed but at the same time intelligently compelling. Difficult: yes. Sensational: yes. Long and over wrought: definitely. Offensive: of course. But it still somehow manages to be edifying and gripping regardless. At the end of the day, all the characters bear hallmarks that are in us, and by putting them through the mill of twisted and salacious flamboyance, Barker discovers something fundamental.

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Skull fucker. Jamie Hutchins as Hamlet in ‘Gertrude – The Cry’. Photograph: Courtesy of Roy Tan.

Direction & Production

There’s a good production behind Gertrude – The Cry that really sinks its talons into Barker’s hot mess and manages to make it fairly compelling for all the dirge you have to drive through to get to the best bits. Hislop’s direction is rocket fueled and leaves little to slow down, even if the text itself is terribly laboured. Everything is constantly moving, constantly unyielding, and constantly switched on. Even in lulls of dialogue there are dynamite looks and actions that propel a scene. Hislop’s injection of hyperactivity is an attempt to keep the audience from wandering off from the text too much: after all, this is the core focus of Gertrude – The Cry. It’s a bit “in-yer-face”, but if it wasn’t it would be far too easy to switch off and be bored.

Some things aren’t as effective. The video work, although fine in quality and vision, is a worthy attempt to break up the text with visual flourishes but just feel superfluous as the text always upstages it. There are a couple of nice moments though, such as projecting a chattering skull over Hamlet at one point, that’s apt and knowingly prophetic. But if it wasn’t there, you wouldn’t miss it. The lighting is also very basic. Admittedly, a plain wash throughout with a few fades is all that Gertrude – The Cry actually needs, and there are some cold and atmospheric creepings of colour at points to build a mood. But some of the positioning doesn’t quite work and it just looks a bit scrappy. There are several badly lit moments where an actor casts a shadow on the rest of the cast, or actors just happen to be in a dim spot. There are points where this is actually quite effective, creating an awkward and eerie look, but it’s difficult to know whether this was intended or not.

On the other hand, the sound design is deft and effective to the point you almost don’t notice it because it feels so organic. Everything from the quiet thump of bass, to the screams of myriad babies, and the cawing of a crow, are delivered in choice moments of great execution. Then, Felicity Reid’s overall design of a clinical white traverse gives the opportunity for small bits of colour in the costume to spark out, like the steely passion of Gertude’s blue shoes or the lines of anger on Hamlet’s red braces.

Cast

Helping Hislop’s steam-rolling direction is an utterly fab cast. All bring an intensity, intelligence, and emotional grit to their characters: some managing to even push through Barker’s often wonky characterisations. There isn’t a weak link among them, but there are certainly some stand-out performances.

Jamie Hutchins as Hamlet is a brutally sarcastic and bilious bundle of sharp rage. Like a likable version of Jim Davidson on crack, Hutchins’ Hamlet is fidgety, coarse, and bitingly charismatic, but simultaneously a coiled spring of condensed danger about to break free. Hutchins is simply marvellous for keeping this fractious tension majestically compressed all the way through Gertrude – The Cry.

Stephen Oswald’s Cascan is sublime. Jaded, sardonic, and self-deprecating, Cascan’s voice rolls off Oswald’s tongue like liquid silk, maintaining a cocksure but down-trodden and viscous demeanor that is dangerously underestimated by everyone around him. Oswald is delicious to watch from start to finish as his presence and his venom fill the room as a truly glorious underdog.

Izabella Urbanowicz as Gertrude utterly steals the show. Urbanowicz has the incredible sex appeal that is simply essential for the role, but also manages to capture the moments of Gertrude’s mania to unnerving effect. As Gertrude – The Cry crescendos to a murderous close, Urbanowicz ends up a glittering and stained catastrophe that is compelling and just as frightening to watch as the deadly siren of earlier. A sheer tornado of passion and poison, Urbanowicz is eternally seductive and ravishing even at the fraying edges of sanity.

Verdict

The Brexit of sexual politics, Gertrude – The Cry is messy, ridiculous, broken, and everyone is fucked either way. But at the same time, it’s compelling and important, and its dirty kinky knickers are not be sniffed at.

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