Gertrude and Claudius at Barrington Stage Company

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Elijah Alexander as Claudius and Kate Maccluggage in Mark St. Germain's Gertrude and Claudius at The Barrington Stage Company. Photo Daniel Rader.
Elijah Alexander as Claudius and Kate Maccluggage in Mark St. Germain’s Gertrude and Claudius at The Barrington Stage Company. Photo Daniel Rader.

Gertrude and Claudius
A New Play by Mark St. Germain
Based on the novel by John Updike
Directed by Julianne Boyd

Gertrude – Kate MacCluggage
King Rorik – Greg Thornton
Amleth – Douglas Rees
Claudius – Elijah Alexander
Herda – Mary Stout
Polonius – Rocco Sisto
Hamlet/Yorick – Nick LaMedica

For some time now, there has been a tendency for directors and actors of Hamlet to treat the protagonist’s mother and uncle/stepfather with more tolerance than in the moralistic past. Shakespeare doesn’t oblige us to view them as outright villains or to see them—or the deceased King of Denmark—from Hamlet’s eyes, but that’s what has usually happened. In the late 1990s John Updike took this about as far as it can sensibly go in his novel, Gertrude and Claudius, in which Gertrude, trapped in a loveless marriage with a well-meaning, but workaholic and limited husband, and Claudius, a slighted younger brother who keeps out of trouble by staying away, living as a mercenary soldier south of the Alps, after years of trying to do the right thing, abandon themselves to a discreet, carefully managed affair. Claudius takes the step to murder the king only when it is necessary to the survival of his beloved and himself. I took an interest in the novel after listening to reflections on it by a brilliant teacher. That was enough to bring me to Barrington Stage to see Mark St. Germain’s theatrical adaptation of it. I wasn’t sure this was a good idea, although I was also surprised that no one had undertaken it before. I was sure of one thing: that it could not be an easy task.

The answer came soon after the lights went up. It was a bad idea, and St. Germain made it worse by taking the easy way with it: he mostly copied out the dialogue from Updike’s text and let that carry the story.

Updike’s novel was enthusiastically reviewed when it first appeared in 2000, and, indeed, it remains a magical book. With his rich narrative prose and his ability to involve the reader in the psychological connections between the characters and whatever desires they may have that are hanging in the balance, Updike made the characters deeply convincing and sympathetic. His commanding use of his prose resembles a painter, like Manet or Van Gogh, who uses visible brush-strokes to create coherent, powerfully defined, and suggestive forms. His direct quotations of their speech read as eloquent outgrowths from his story-telling and belong entirely to its fabric. The dialogue in his novel was not written to be spoken on stage by actors. (An actor might perform a reading of it in an intimate space or for an audiobook, but that is a different art altogether.) When, as Mark St. Germain has done, someone lifts this dialogue literally from its context piece by piece and assembles it into something resembling a play, the words become distorted. The sentences which were eloquent and beautiful in the novel are drained of their sap when recited on stage. In many cases they sound like nothing more than stilted attempts at heightened language.

St. Germain has drained Updike’s creation of all life and reduced to a connect-the-dots puzzle. It isn’t hard to imagine any number of scenarios for Gertrude’s and Claudius’ backstory. In this pedestrian staging of the events in Updike’s novel the audience is left to sit through one episode and patiently wait for the next. Of course everyone knows how it’s going to end. I was kept in my seat by a mild curiosity about whether some surprise might crop up along the way, but no, there was none. There were also pointless repetitions of certain elements, like King Amleth’s empty attempts to satisfy Gerturde as a husband or Gertrude’s negative assesment of her son. I was mildly bored throughout the performance. The play might have been more worthy of respect, if it had been truly deadly, walk-out boring, but it didn’t go that far. If the playwright thought he had found an easy way to come up with another Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, he was barking up the wrong tree.

It was obvious that some talent of a high order had been assembled to put this text on stage. Julianne Boyd’s direction was incisive. Kate MacCluggage (Gertrude) and Elijah Alexander (Claudius)  are attractive and extremely able actors who could not deliver more than wooden performances with the weak material they had to work with. Their acting, both singly and together, heated up a bit as the relationship between their characters became more sexual. Suddenly, close to the end, the writing improved drastically, and they rose to the occasion. They really seemed to be having fun, finally, with a scene that was lifted bodily from Shakespeare’s play itself! Only Rocco Sisto as Polonius seemed to find a way to breathe some life into his character. Greg Thornton elicited sympathy as King Rorik, Gertrude’s father, as he became more vulnerable in ill health. Douglas Rees showed energy as Amleth, and Nick LaMedica, less interesting as Yorick, gave an amusing if threatening caricature of Hamlet at the end.

The handsome costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti should not go unmentioned.

I regret finding it necessary to be so harsh on this exercise. I was drawn to the show by curiosity, and I didn’t expect too much, but in the end I couldn’t help feeling cheated.

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