Thursday, June 16, 2016

'Gertrude - The Cry' at Theatre N16, 14th June 2016

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Extremely rotten. Gertrude is a nymphomaniac; Hamlet is a grinning idiot that'sbarely able to hold himself together; and Claudius can't help flashing his dick all over the place. And who the hell are the Duke of Meklenberg, Isola, Raguso and Cascan 

Howard Barker's Gertrude - The Cry is pretty damn far from your RSC tights and jerkins. We open with the King of Denmark's murder: Gertrude screams "fuck me!" as she strips down, straddles the his dying body and gets vigorously banged. As the last spasms of life drain from her husband, Gertrude lets out an orgasmic cry that probably gave the swing class in the room below pause for thought.

The rest of the play sees (among other things) Gertrude trying to recreate this 'cry': her and Claudius' subsequent sexual adventures not quite living up to the potent combo of sex, death and immorality that blew her away in the opening. Essentially she's lost her mojo, and goes to some pretty desperate ends to recapture it. 

Though the sex is cranked up to high levels, Barker's sinewy dialogue prevents things sliding into camp. Though tinged with Shakespearian-ish language, it's got a modern sheen and a sharp sense of the absurd. How can you not smile in delight at the sheer straightforwardness of Hamlet declaring, upon hearing his mother has birthed a smiling little sister, "who would not have smiled to have escaped the foetid dungeon of my mother's womb?". Stuff like this is less tinged with Freudian psychology than ripped straight from the good doctor's more lurid patient interviews.

Frankly, it's nice to see a play that really goes for it. Any notions of civility, tact and friendliness are quickly jettisoned in favour of a series of emotional crescendos that increase in volume until there's a pile of desecrated bodies in centre stage and the boundaries between each character have blurred so much they bleed into one another. Treating the classic work of British theatre with utter irreverence Barker is primarily concerned with forcing Shakespeare's characters into a blender and picking through the resulting bloody muck than straightforward storytelling.

I've got to admit, I lost the narrative thread a couple of times. As each character worked themselves up into histrionics, culminating in deeply bizarre behaviour I had to shrug and go with it. Still, while the characters transplanted straight from Hamlet are easy enough to follow, the new ones are somewhat more opaque. For example, I never could quite work out what Claudius and the King's Mum, Isola was after, apparently switching gears between cheerleading Gertrude's overt sexuality and worrying that her remaining son is about to fall victim to her vagina dentata.

Papering over these cracks is a fine set committed performances. Stephen Oswald is a eye-catching physical presence - the kind of gigantic beardy dude you can imagine on a medieval battlefield swinging an axe into somebody's face. His intimidating frame is cleverly underplayed in order to convey a character that's introverted and verbose, edgily waiting on the fringes of the action and never quite able to throatily participate in all the fucking.

But the crown jewel is undoubtedly Izabella Urbanowicz' Gertrude. She was the best thing in February's similarly bard-screwing Hamlet Peckham and never fails to impress her. She plays Gertrude like a caged animal, lashing out from under a shock of tangled hair with a scorched earth approach to sexuality. There's something irresistibly sickly about the way her Gertrude sluts it up - her eyes flashing with a serpentine seductiveness. Whenever she's on stage you can't take your eyes off her and while it's difficult to become emotionally involved in her story, Urbanowicz provides a sexual razzledazzle that it's impossible to deny.

There's been a refreshing dialling up of intensity in the theatre of late. Edward Bond's Dea served up a symphony of sexual violence, Christie in Love charted the sewers of men's minds and now Gertrude - The Cry takes us to the outer limits of female sexuality. 

Granted, the play is written and directed by men, but whoever's behind it, and despite some narrative confusingness, and despite it being a bum-numbing 2 hours without an interval, it's mega-refreshing to see anything with such fuck-you verve, determined to demolish the walls of politeness and decorum.


Gertrude - The Cry is at Theatre N16 until 30 June. Tickets here.

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