Tag Archives: Howard Barker

“Gertrude – The Cry” at Theatre N16

Chris Hislop is a brave director. Staging the first revival of Howard Barker’s 2002 play is not for the faint hearted. The play refocuses Shakespeare’s Hamlet through female characters and makes for an interesting puzzle. The controversy comes with a tense subservience to Barker’s own themes – this is some explicit Shakespeare. X-rated and extreme, the text’s obsession with sex and death is allied to the idea of ecstasy, and there are plenty of downright odd ideas and actions. Opening on Gertrude and Claudius fornicating over a corpse is hardly subtle stuff, but a kinky, adventurous streak is to the production’s credit.

Jamie Hutchins as Hamlet
Jamie Hutchins as Hamlet

Hislop deserves further praise for the strong performances garnered from his cast, and there’s a deserved sense of pride in showing these off. In the title role Izabella Urbanowicz is “severe” and sex crazed, and skilled at showing the character’s pain – even when Gertrude starts referring to herself in the third person, there’s still fragility. All the men are in thrall to Gertrude, and Alexander Hulme and David Zachary play Claudius and Albert with a suitably visceral brutality.

The more interesting characters, who bring out the sly humour in the text, are the servant Cascan, well played by Stephen Oswald, and our former hero, Hamlet. Taking on a very different Dane, one in “the last days of infancy”, Jamie Hutchins excels, “saying less, suffering more”, with outrage and oddity perfectly embodied. There are two further fascinating roles for women. L J Reeves plays Ragusa (no, I’m not sure why she isn’t called Ophelia) and Lisa Keast, the “vile and peculiar” Queen Mother. More than a foil for Gertrude, Barker spoils us by giving these women quirks of their own. Their brave performances add substantially to the show.

None of the roles Barker has written is easy. The accusation against him is one of misogyny – it’s easy to see why – but misanthropy might be more precise. Ragusa’s lament, that “man is better than this, surely?”, is one line most of us would agree with. More problematic, the characters are so deliberately stylised (yet more credit to the cast) with a yen for the abstract, it’s easy to disconnect from them. Barker’s poetic dialogue, expletives included, is so defiant it’s hard not to admire it. But discussion of that cry – a mysterious signifier of orgasm, childbirth, betrayal (a lot, then) – is both overplayed and opaque. Suspiciously in need of capitalisation, The Cry takes over from Gertrude as the subject of this play. Frequently hysterical, the text becomes shrill. My response to Barker, a polite request to “Calm down, dear.”

Until 30 June 2016


Photos by Roy Tan

“Lot and His God” at The Print Room

Regardless of your religious view, as a repository of stories the Bible rates pretty near the top. But few writers have taken inspiration from it in quite the style of Howard Barker in his play Lot and His God, receiving its UK premiere at The Print Room in Notting Hill. A ‘re-imagining’ of the story from Genesis, about the destruction of Sodom and the fate of Lot of his family, Barker’s take is predictably outrageous – highlighting all that Old Testament fire and brimstone that nowadays makes nearly everyone uncomfortable.

Lot and His God is a complicated, demanding piece that you need to be wide-awake for. To get the most out of its references, get up to speed on Genesis before you head to the theatre. This play’s politics are as challenging as its dense poetic language and as a human drama it is compelling with its incessant power struggle between the characters. This is a sexy story of biblical wife-swapping with an angel who has a shoe fetish. It’s as bizarre as the original source material.

And spare a thought for the actors in Robyn Winfield-Smith’s fine production. Barker’s characterisation is deliberately stylised, and his script complex, but they rise to challenge. Justin Avoth has great presence as the Angel Drogheda and Mark Tandy is an articulate Lot presenting many of Barker’s arguments with a clarity that marks him as a performer in control. Hermione Gulliford, who plays Lots’ wife, comes close to stealing the show with as steely a grip on the men in her life as her stylish clutch bag, and a deadpan delivery that subtlety brings out the humour in the piece.

This hour-long play is full, rich and intriguing. Barker’s is a unique, important, voice and the intimacy of The Print Room is a great place to hear it. But for all its intelligence this work is fuelled by an intense anger against religion that is in danger of being alienating. This conversation with God should make you think, but may leave you feeling it’s an argument from which you’re being excluded.

Until 24 November 2012


Written 9 November 2012 for The London Magazine