It's true. We rarely turn away from crime scenes when we pass their way. In fact, most of us find ourselves involuntarily staring, petrified in our steps, and simply wondering: How on earth could things go so wrong? Now think of a play that goes even further. Imagine a show that takes you back to the very beginning, just when the cracks begin to form at the foundation. Gertrude - The Cry, traces out every detailed step of pleasure, politics, and agony leading up to the tragic end. In this dark drama, playwright Howard Barker brilliantly re-imagines the story of "Hamlet" through the eyes of his mother, Gertrude. Barker, along with an electrifying cast, crafts a story with building and palpable intensity.
Actor Pamela J. Gray stars as the play's titular character, Gertrude, in PTP/NYC's production of the play. In fact, Gray, a Yale alum and Connecticut native, played the role of Gertrude before in the original Hamlet. However, when she first read Barker’s version, she thought “This is crazy balls out! Either this is the smartest thing ever, or the weirdest thing ever.” Still, the play took hold of Gray, so she took it to a close friend with a very important question: “Is this as good as I think it is?” The answer was a resounding ‘Yes.’
After the first ten minutes of the show, it doesn’t take much to realize how ambitious the role is. Gertrude engages in an unabashed and hypersexualized moment with her lover - and husband’s brother - Claudius, right in front of the King’s dying eyes. Now, follow that chilling moment with a raw and natural transition to regret, and then finish with solemn emptiness.
“I knew it was jumping off a cliff,” Gray remembers. “I’ve done a lot of polite theatre before, and I thought: ‘This will be an opportunity.…There were so many options to play with, but I think in everything she stays true to herself – she never lets go of that power she wields.” In perfect theatre fashion, Gray immediately recalls a perfect line from the play to illustrate her point: “It’s evident in the way she approaches everything: ‘A killed child on the floor, and in the corridor another famishes. And yet I am maternal.’”
The importance of Gertrude’s ‘Cry’ is another powerful thread woven throughout the play. Each time it’s uttered, it evolves. Gray explains that Gertrude “can’t eliminate the evidence of the betrayal,” thus the cry becomes the “purge of the guild. All of life, and its ugliness gets purged through it.” On stage, the effect is beyond chilling.
Gray is not alone in amazing captivating performances. Robert Emmet Lunney plays her lover, Claudius, with wonderfully authentic and palpable agony. His devolution into unrequited love’s misery parallels to the mesmerizing path that David Barlow’s portrayal of Hamlet takes. Barlow’s able to naturally convey the reason and psychological torture of the poor prince in such a vulnerable way that even when bathed in blood, we still pity him. Though great deal of the pity might be reserved for Alex Draper’s chilling performance as Gertrude’s servant, Cascan. Underneath each measured and clever line, lies a wretched and quivering devotion to the queen. “It exists outside of what we understand conventional relationships to be,” Gray explains. This can be said for many of the interactions between the characters in this show. From the Duke of Mecklenberg’s (Bill Army) shamelessly brave pursuit of Gertrude, to Isola’s (Katherin Kates) Iago-esque dealings with the love of affairs of the palace. Nothing is quite as simple as it initially seems.
What’s clear is that in this show, there is no respite. There is no word left without potent, palpable meaning. As a result, there is never a moment where the audience isn't listening nor watching the stage. Like all forbidden fruit, it leaves hungry for more – a desire the play urges us to quench.