This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com
“Frailty, thy name is woman” or, to be more specific, thy name is Gertrude. This tirade in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet was directed at the title character’s mother for having married his uncle within a month of his father’s death, but the Gertrude in Howard Barker’s take on the same story is anything but frail. Barker’s play received its World Premiere at Elsinore Castle in 2002 and it must have shaken the foundations of the ancient building. Grief and revenge were Shakespeare’s key themes, but here we have a dark and savage satire on power, sex and the power of sex. This Queen Gertrude is more raunchy than regal and an opening scene in which she and Claudius murder the King and then join him in bed for a bizarre threesome sets the tone for what is to follow. Barker’s stark dialogue leaves us hanging on every word in anticipation of the next shock and director Chris Hislop’s chillingly explicit production tunes in perfectly to the unsparing yet lyrical writing. The all white traverse stage resembles a catwalk, as modern dance music plays and montages of trendy images flash onto a video screen. The high and mighty of the rotten state of Denmark parade their wares up and down in black and white modern dress, a monochrome monarchy that turns Elsinore into a madhouse. Izabella Urbanowicz’s dirty Gertie is a tour de force. Blinded by urges to gratify her sexual desires and obsessed by her faultless legs, she manipulates the hapless Claudius (Alexander Hulme) and seduces Hamlet’s best friend, the lust-struck Duke of Mecklenburg (David Zachary). Sometimes dressed like a slutty schoolgirl, she could be her son’s little sister, but we are told that she is 34. This suggests that a teenage Hamlet could not possibly have known Yorick well, but, if Barker, aided by Hislop’s casting, often sets narrative logic aside, didn’t Shakespeare too? Jamie Hutchins’ clown-like Hamlet, well past his teens, moralises in confusion, repeatedly protesting “so many things I don’t understand”. He becomes King upon his father’s death (Barker exposing a flaw in Shakespeare’s plotting?), but show’s no grief, no indecision and no vengefulness. Oddly, he is the only character in the play to keep his sexual urges under wraps and, when he and the servant girl Ragusa (LJ Reeves) discover that they have no feelings for each other whatsoever, they decide to marry. This version dispenses with the Polonius family and introduces new characters. Cascan, played by Stephen Oswald as if an intruder from the Scottish play, is Gertrude’s faithful manservant who takes great pride in washing his mistress’s intimate areas. Liza Keast’s outwardly demure Isola is the Queen’s mother-in-law (“a whore in her own time”), who shows little concern for her sons’ fates, but envies and rejoices in Gertrude’s promiscuity. It is no secret that, in Hamlet, they all die and, again here, the bodies pile up (literally), but not necessarily the same ones. Barker seems to take great pleasure in turning Shakespeare’s version of events upside down, but he emulates him by making his own play too long (over two hours with no interval). Even so, this is a blistering, no-holds-barred reimagining of the familiar story that will not be forgotten quickly.
Performance date: 14 June 2016
Photo: Roy Tan