FringeReview UK 2016
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark …
At first glance it’s the peeling paint and damp, crumbling brickwork surrounding the acting area at 88 London Road. There’s a man lying face down asleep in the centre of the stage, and a dark-haired woman in a white silk dressing gown is standing against the wall at the back.
Nothing else. The space is completely bare – the high walls make the figures look small, isolated. Greenish lighting adds to the sense of neglect and desolation. In actual fact a lot of the decaying walls are a trompe l’oeil effect and the venue used to be a chapel, but the overall effect is of being in a vast abandoned space, a ballroom perhaps, in a castle or a palace.
Conor Baum’s work is becoming more and more minimalist. He did ‘Thirst of The Salt Mountain’ in this same space last year; the stage white with what appeared to be caked sea-salt and almost empty of props except for a huge tube of translucent plastic sheeting hanging from the roof – the stomach membranes of the whale that swallowed Jonah.
Now, as Brief Hiatus, with his co-director Edd Berridge, he’s tackled Howard Barker’s visceral take on the Hamlet story. For ‘Gertrude. The Cry’, the only stage dressing is a few basic wooden chairs. Simple lighting too – greens, with some white spots occasionally providing sidelight through the doors at the sides of the acting space. Nothing else at all. Absolute minimalism.
Less is More in Elsinore.
As the play starts, the woman comes downstage, and another man enters. It’s Claudius, the brother of the sleeping King Hamlet. We are familiar with the Shakespeare play, but right from the off this is a very different Gertrude … “Kill my husband then – kill him for me”
Claudius commands her to strip naked, which she does. Claudius gazes intensely at her body (as do we) and tells her –
“and if he stirs, if his eyes open in his agony, show him the reason he is dying. Let him see what I have stolen. What was his, and now belongs to me.”
Gertrude, completely nude now, squats over the sleeping man. As Claudius pours poison into his ear, and King Hamlet writhes in agony, his wife and his brother fuck passionately, straddled above his twisting body, their cries of ecstasy mingling with the dying man’s screams.
That’s really all you need to know to catch the essence of this production. Howard Barker’s Gertrude is a woman driven by sex. By the overwhelming need for sensuality. For the sex itself, the shattering release and cry of orgasm, and also by the power it gives her over others. She fucks family, strangers (she fantasises being a prostitute), her servants, her son Hamlet’s friend Albert, the Duke of Mecklenburg – and if they die as a result that simply heightens the experience. Maybe it’s not for nothing that the French refer to orgasm as ‘the little death’ …
But she’s also a mother. She’s the mother of Hamlet, certainly, and then she’s pregnant with Claudius’ child – Prince Hamlet’s half sister. Gertrude gives life as well as extinguishing it. By the end she’s married to Albert of Mecklenberg and carrying his child.
Because this is a play centred on women. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet the women are secondary characters – in Barker’s version they wield the power. As well as Gertrude, the playwright gives us Isola, the mother of Claudius, and of King Hamlet too of course. She’s important not just as a nagging foil to Gertrude, but to remind us forcefully that the two men were actually brothers, with parallel childhoods overseen by this woman. Full brothers born from the same mother. Somehow this makes King Hamlet’s fratricidal murder even more dreadful, and shows the power of the sensual hold that Gertrude has over Claudius.
Ophelia is replaced in this version by Ragusa, who’s a lot harder-headed than Shakespeare’s original. She knows the power of women. After Claudius has poisoned Prince Hamlet, which he has done out of his passion for Gertrude, Ragusa tells him – “Poor woman, take her to bed”. But she knows how men’s minds work, the power of her own femininity, and so she continues – “I’ll be there, however, I’ll be in the bed”. She means she will be in Claudius’ thoughts – “Already you betray her”.
Cascan understands all this very well. He’s a servant / butler, the most philosophical of the male characters. Edd Berridge plays him with a world-weary knowing and sadness, commenting on the action like a Greek Chorus. He tells Ragusa of the two moments of greatness in a woman’s life. The day she gives birth, and – “the day on which … out of a terrible hunger … she lies to her husband”. He means the hunger for another man. Cascan understands women very well – it seems he too sometimes sleeps with Gertrude.
Powerful stuff. Barker’s playwriting is epic – the language is quite formal and the line construction feels like the words are chiselled into stone. On a memorial, perhaps.
All the characters are, not exactly caricatures, but somehow heightened versions of the people they represent. And they’re very well cast in this production. Penny Scott-Andrews’ Isola is thin and beanpole tall, perfect for the nagging mother-in-law. David Fenne plays Duke Albert as a youth consumed by passion for Gertrude, like a small boy with his face pressed up against a sweetshop window – though in his case he‘s bent double in the throes of pleasure with his nose buried in Gertrude‘s discarded knickers. But then at the close, as Gertrude’s husband, he’s matured into authority. Looking back at the pile of Elsinore bodies there’s a coldness as he orders – “Burn these. Burn and scatter these”.
Conor Baum’s acting face is incredibly mobile. As Hamlet, he twists his body and his mouth grimaces as the Prince/youth struggles to mature – to adjust to his new role of King/adult. Baum is tall, but he stoops forward just a little to accentuate the intensity of his puzzlement and anguish as he speaks directly to us in the audience – trying to come to terms with what is happening to his family.
“I’m saying less
suffering more and
Gertrude couldn’t be more different. Rosanna Bini spent a lot of the production naked, but she clothed the character in an aura of power and authority. Gertrude’s the pivot around which the whole play revolves, and whether she’s fretting about her stockings and raincoat (“the kind a prostitute would wear”), displaying her body to various lovers, or clad in a tight black dress arguing with her mother-in-law, Bini always gripped our attention. Her delivery was sometimes a little too fast and inaudible to make out the words clearly, but her stage presence and body language managed to convey the power of her lines perfectly.
Minimal, as I said above. Gripping performances by the actors, but powerful staging and design also. Just a few chairs in the acting space, allowing each of us to create our own palace of Elsinore – I know what mine looked like. The graveyard too, where Claudius’ funeral takes place – three chairs lined up, with the body laid out across them. The mourners came down to the stage through the audience, holding umbrellas high over their heads. With their dark outdoor coats and Cascan’s formal tailcoat and white gloves it looked astonishingly like a Jack Vettriano painting come to life in front of us.
Minimal. Visceral. Unforgettable.