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Gertrude – The Cry review at Theatre N16, London – ‘oddly passionless’

Izabella Urbanowicz and Alexander Hulme in Gertrude at Theatre-N16, London. Photo Roy Tan Izabella Urbanowicz and Alexander Hulme in Gertrude at Theatre-N16, London. Photo Roy Tan
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Howard Barker’s remixing of Hamlet, Gertrude – The Cry, is at once earthy and intellectual. Scenes of blowjobs at funerals and sex atop corpses sit next to diatribes on moralising and reflexive musings on what it means to shock.

One of Barker’s most complicated female protagonists, Gertrude’s arc is supremely difficult – by comparison Galactia, the artist in his Scenes from an Execution has a clear moral choice to make. Here Gertrude’s uncensored sexual self is not creed or art to be held out and dissected – it is her.

Gertrude is the centre of her own tragedy, a sexually voracious queen whose court, and not least her “prudish prig” son Hamlet, is at once fascinated and disgusted by her. Meanwhile Claudius is in search of Gertrude’s “cry”, fearing that he has not heard an orgasmic pant from her since they colluded to kill her husband.

Felicity Reid’s catwalk-like traverse stage takes its influence from fashion, another world where the female body is simultaneously revered and constrained, and where it is unclear whether sex is power, or whether power is sex, but these echoes are lost in Chris Hislop’s production, which doesn’t provide a concrete sense of place, or marry the performances to Barker’s admittedly strange dialogue.

Gertrude and Claudius are confusingly passionless, considering that their fatal urges fuel Barker’s catastrophe. Izabella Urbanowicz’s journey as Gertrude, dropping into madness and grief as the bodies pile up at her feet, seems too simple a choice for this torn character, and it ends up accentuating the gynophobic undercurrent in Barker’s text.

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Smutty, intellectual reworking of Hamlet that isn't rescued from its misogyny by an oddly passionless staging