Interview: Chris Hislop on Barker’s Gertrude

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“It is impossible – now, at this point in the long journey of human culture – to avoid the sense that pain is necessity…that it is integral to the human character both in its inflicting and in its suffering…” – Howard Barker

Howard Barker is no stranger to sex and violence. His 2002 reimagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet places the prince’s mother and her sexuality centre stage in a divisive interpretation of the character who receives little attention in the original story. Rarely staged (most likely due to its relentless, sexually explicit subject matter), theatre PR Chris Hislop returns to directing with this upcoming production of Gertrude: The Cry at Theatre N16 in Balham. The play has fostered a huge range of opinions regarding its depiction of women, feminism and female sexuality and its director has a lot to say on the matter.

Why does this play need to be staged?

It’s a vital, powerful and fascinating piece that tackles feminism and sexuality from a very different angle. It’s also a wonderful dissection of Hamlet – considering the Shakespeare 400 celebrations, now is a great time to be giving the Prince of Denmark an overhaul. It’s also a largely forgotten and underperformed piece by a difficult and complex writer. We need more plays like this and writers like Barker, and if this production inspires anybody to think differently, I’ve done my job well.

Opposing views say Barker presents women in an empowering or negative light. What approach are you taking, and why?

Both – my favourite thing about this play is how it was written to empower an underwritten female character, and yet does such a piss-poor job of doing so. Or maybe it doesn’t – maybe Barker’s aggressive sexualising of Gertrude and blatant female nudity throughout is his attempt at female empowerment. Either way, he’s not a misogynist. Barker’s obsession with women has translated into some wonderful parts in his shows, and he’s always trying to write pieces that celebrate and empower them, just through a rather perverse lens. I don’t want to circumnavigate that entirely, just sand down some of the sharper corners.

What’s so appealing about the character of Gertrude in Shakespeare and Barker’s scripts?

She’s an utter mess. She doesn’t know what she wants, she doesn’t know how she’ll achieve it, and she’s governed by her wants and desires. She’s an incredibly human, rounded character. She’s a mother and a lover, neither of which are mutually exclusive.

Would you say this is a feminist play? Why/why not?

I struggle with the word “feminism”. Our world is defined by our language, and by defining an issue by a specific gender we’re generating responses that hinder as well as help. We talk about “racism” – defining someone by their race – so why don’t we call it “genderism”?

Anyway, I digress: I think this is a play about women, the role of women, and women’s sexuality – not exclusively, I think it has a lot to say about sex in general, but the fact that it does so from a female perspective is important. You could say that it’s not even really from a female perspective; it’s a script by a man, and it’s being directed by a man, but I find such comments painfully genderist. I wouldn’t expect only women to like Carol Churchill, or only men to like books by Ross Kemp.

So – is it a feminist play? Yes. Do I think that’s important? Not really. Do I think it tackles important issues around sex and gender? Yes. Is that important? 100%.

Gertrude: The Cry opens 12 June.

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