by Everett Goldner · July 15, 2014
Gertrude: the Cry is not an easy play; not to watch, not to digest. It doesn’t want to be. This is without question playwright Howard Barker’s intention, who tells us in the program that “the theatre deludes itself with its civilizing mission when chaos is its nature. The more it illuminates the more it inspires a passion for the dark. So it is with the civilizing instinct itself, which invokes its opposite with every exhortation to love, forgive or understand…”
Little wonder, then, that a company devoted to performing Barker’s works was named The Wrestling School. There is something essentially counter about his work: counter-revolutionary, counter-intuitive, even anti-social: choose your own fifty-cent word. If we imagine theater that seeks to entertain as presiding on Mercury, then Barker’s domain is in the frozen wastes of Pluto. After the show, myself and the friend I went with found ourselves zoned out, almost as if we were stoned; unable to say much coherent about what we’d witnessed beyond, “yeah… that was interesting…”
This is No Man’s Land for anyone who prefers bread and circuses and gladiators shouting “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?” Barker wants us down there in the pit with them.
And he won’t take no for an answer. “How few people can sit still!” Barker’s Hamlet observes, early in the show. “Knees together, folded hands, while they shift and fidget and flap their hands…” and he doesn’t mean Gertrude, or Claudius, or any particular iteration of guilt (indeed, while motivations will be unfolded, recriminations thrown and oaths of ecstasy and insult hurled about the stage like footballs, there is very little guilt in this show – if Gertrude wins the battle, it is only because, as almost every character sooner or later says, she is made of stone). No, Hamlet is referring to us. The audience. And as he throws this at you, his disgust palpable, you may wonder if you should fidget, even if you’d been at ease a moment before.
This play first premiered (at Elsinore Castle) twelve years ago, and since then it has often been misunderstood as a prequel to Hamlet. It is not. It is a spin – an intensely polarized spin – on Gertrude and on the darkness of sexuality, which uses only three of Shakespeare’s characters – the titular mother, Hamlet and Claudius – and invents a number of others in order to lead us to a place of hatred and horror that Shakespeare could not, under any circumstances, have ever conceived. This is not a Gertrude who is, as Isaac Asimov aptly put it, “not that bright”; nor a Gertrude to wither under Hamlet’s gaze and the black and grained spots she spies in her soul. This is a Gertrude who begs to be allowed to give her husband the poison, and orgasms – for Claudius and for us – like a wild Greek oracle when into his ears the leprous distilment is poured.
“The cry! You know I must hear the cry!” Claudius tells us. What is the cry? As a wise man once said about pornography, “you know it when you see it.” And Claudius needs the real thing, the whole jukebox: “all my life I sought it… the cry of all and every moving thing… blood, bone and mineral…” when his manservant points out that love is rather pathetic, Claudius, rather pathetically, cannot decide if it is or not. When his mother points out that Gertrude doesn’t love him, he explodes into a twelve-year old’s tantrum: “SO WHAT if she stoops to swallow dogs…” His only saving grace is possession; he needs not “those melancholy proofs of masculinity…” not so long as he has the cry of Gertrude.
The acting is of course excellent: from Pamela J. Gray, who shows off the many sides of Gertrude as expertly as she shows off her legs; from David Barlow as Hamlet, who takes what could easily be a distracting sideshow and mines it for comedic gold; from Meghan Leathers as Ragusa, the girl Ophelia might have become if only she had been possessed of a spine; from Bill Army as Albert, Gertrude’s younger conquest, who inhabits the obtusely stupid lust of a high school jock with calculation and finesse.
My sense of the show in totality can perhaps best be summed up thus: for the first twenty minutes I didn’t know if I would like it. For the rest of the first act, I didn’t know if anyone’s hands were on the steering wheel. Through the second act, I was sufficiently thrilled to pay close attention; I didn’t know where we would end up, but suspected it would be more horrific and pathetic than yet I knew. It was, dear reader. It was.