"Tragedy is a sacred art. If you do not understand the sacred, do not enter the theatre. – Please, absolutely no food, drinks or mobile phones in the theatre." Yes, with Howard Barker, even the peripheral theatre-etiquette notices are characteristically lapidary. Of course, one sometimes doesn't give this most intellectually engaged of playwrights sufficient credit for his humour, but even if this is self-parody, it's notably Barkerian.
Inside the Riverside complex's Studio 3, it's familiar Barker territory as well. Like a handful of his other plays, Gertrude – The Cry is a palimpsest upon an already extant work... in this case, an examination of the depth and colour of Gertrude and Claudius's love in the Danish royal family of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Mother, uncle, son and a trio of non-Shakespearean characters move through the usual tangles of love, non-love, sex, death and (for we can never forget whose writing this is) moral failings.
The cry of the title stands for the sincerity of Gertrude in orgasm. Claudius (Sean O'Callaghan) feels that, after the initial frenzy of passion which led them to murder the old king, he has lost this aural badge of Gertrude's commitment. As Gertrude, Victoria Wicks slinks around in (and quite often out of) Billie Kaiser's series of alluring costumes, toying with lovesick young Albert of Mecklenburg and spasmodically attempting to reach some kind of rapprochement with Claudius. Tom Burke's Hamlet is the foremost interrogator of the lovers' conduct and attitudes, but being mad himself is in no position to offer any practical pointers.
And this is where Gertrude – The Cry differs from virtually every other Barker play I have seen. Inevitably, all characters fall morally short: they are imperfect, misdirected, ensnared or downright squalid. But we are usually given a palpable idea of what it is they're falling short of. Here, love and sin are so intimately bound up that there's oddly little room for exposition of an identifiable moral perspective or set of values from which all this deprecation is being directed... in short, of what defines the sin as sin. Without this fundamental sense that the moral universe is a reality (even if it's usually located somewhere apart from the action), it all feels, by the exacting standards of the playwright, almost trivial.
Despite Barker's own detailed, deceptively sensitive direction, the production also feels a little "softer" than other recent ventures by his dedicated company The Wrestling School. After a series of steely, brutalist set designs by Tomas Leipzig that made one feel vaguely as if one were being shown the instruments of torture before the inquisitors got down to business, Caroline Shentang's design for this show lacks focus or bite. The blocking, sound and visual effects are familiar from other Barkers, neither radical in themselves nor revivified in the context of this play. Barker's handling of his own absurdist-surreal side continues to grow in confidence (Hamlet has not actually succumbed to madness when he observes, "Horses don't have handkerchiefs!"), but just as in Gertrude and Claudius's affair, there's an eloquent voice missing from the core of the piece.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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