The most theatrically engaging and emotionally complete production I’ve seen so far this summer, “Gertrude and Claudius” combines the brawn of a medieval history play with the intelligence of a contemporary revenge drama.
Commissioned by the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre, where it had its world premiere last year, “Gertrude and Claudius” is receiving a rousing production at Barrington Stage Company, with which its author, Mark St. Germain, has a long artistic association. (The company’s smaller stage was named after him seven years ago.)
Essentially a prequel to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” that explores the origins of the relationship between the title characters – the mother and stepfather of the moody Danish prince – “Gertrude and Claudius” was adapted by St. Germain from John Updike’s best-selling 2000 novel of the same name. According to Updike’s son David, a writer who happened to be sitting in the same row as me at Sunday’s opening performance, St. Germain was chosen by Updike’s estate from among multiple proposals to adapt the book for the stage.
St. Germain succeeds brilliantly, crafting language that synthesizes the formality and eloquence of Shakespeare with a modern, accessible vernacular. At one point, a character says, “I got away with it!,” an exclamation rather more contemporary than anything from pre-Renaissance Denmark or Elizabethan England but which sounds perfectly right here, in a production directed by the finesse and acuity we’ve come to expect from BSC’s artistic director, Julianne Boyd.
Covering about 30 years, “Gertrude and Claudius” begins with the arranged marriage of Gertrude to Hamlet’s father, King Amleth. It continues over the decades while the king, a generally caring and considerate husband distracted by affairs of state, misses the affair of the heart between his wife and his world-traveling brother, Claudius. The unfulfilled lovers see one another occasionally, building their bond primarily through letters, until Gertrude asserts her royal prerogative and essentially orders Claudius to return, starting them toward regicide and the beginning of the story in “Hamlet.”
Performed on a handsome, imposing set of high castle walls, designed by Lee Savage and lit to perfection by David Lander, with gorgeous costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti, BSC’s “Gertrude and Claudius” has an outstanding title pair in Kate MacCluggage and Elijah Alexander. Both acutely aware of the constraints of the era and the weight of their respective places in the royal family, they nonetheless build a deeply affecting connection. Claudius wanders the globe because the only thing harder than being away from Gertrude would be to see her daily; she is a proper, strong queen, wife and mother, but, her mind often far away, she also comes to consider Elsinore as much prison as castle, haunting its hallways as her husband’s ghost will after his murder.
With an excellent Douglas Rees as Amleth, guilty of little more than neglect on the domestic front, Berkshires veteran Rocco Sisto as the chattering royal adviser Polonius, reliable and comedic Mary Stout as Gertrude’s matronly handmaiden and Nick LaMedica as vital though largely silent Hamlet, the production moves toward its inevitable end. Though the conclusion is foregone, the journey there is not, and some of its stops offer surprise and insight. The best of them is a scene that closes the first act, when Claudius introduces Gertrude to his trained falcons. (The puppetry is by Brandon Hardy, who also worked on BSC’s season-opening “Into the woods.”)
Rich in metaphor and emotion, the falcon scene ends with a moment of theatrical magic that it would be unfair to reveal further. St. Germain is said to have been pacing at the back of the balcony, agonizing that the essential moment would work as intended. It does. Gertrude and Claudius together make an irrevocable choice, forever altering lives and history.
Review by Steve Barnes from the Times Union. Link to the full article can be found here.