I have to admit that whenever I have attended a production of “Hamlet”, never have I wondered about the sexual relationship between Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and her husband’s brother, Claudius.
In Shakespeare’s play, it’s enough to know Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father, the King of Denmark. It was the deed that sets in motion Hamlet’s quest for revenge.
However, thanks to “Gertrude and Claudius,” a new play which runs at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass through August 3, I’ll probably never again attend a production of “Hamlet” without thinking of the backstory to their relationship.
“Gertrude and Claudius” is a strange love story about two people who, for decades, fought their attraction for each other. Finally, in middle age they surrender to their desires and by so doing, set in motion a series of tragic events that reveal themselves in Shakespeare’s play.
It’s a conundrum that there is absolutely no reason to know the plot of “Hamlet” to appreciate “Gertrude and Claudius.” The tale of brotherly rivalry is as old as Cain and Able. So too, the story about a beautiful queen falling in love with a handsome adventurous bad boy has been around before Guinevere met Lancelot.
However, you have to wonder if the characters in “Gertrude and Claudius” didn’t reappear in “Hamlet," would the romance be as interesting?
Indeed, while the work is compelling, and the acting terrific, especially in the second act, the drama of their love is rarely heated.
Though Mark St. Germaine did a marvelous job in adapting the novel by John Updike to the stage, their path to sexual consummation is lacking drama. The on and off nature of their romance makes their love strangely tepid.
But tepid does not mean uninteresting. There are many moments between the two that shows the inevitability of their destiny and hints at the potential for tragedy. The closing scene of the first act involving a metaphoric falcon is beautiful, tense and revealing.
Throughout, the scenic elements and period costumes are perfect both for time and mood. This is a beautiful production.
There is also fun to be had for those who are familiar with the play “Hamlet.” We meet the melancholy young Dane for a couple of fleeting moments and learn about him through his parents’ observation.
Too, we see Polonius in a new light and even encounter poor Yorick.
But the heart of the play is the relationship between Gertrude and Claudius, which can be frustrating. Perhaps it’s knowing what happens once they give into their desires. Or it just might be that because their passions are always halted and put on hold that their romance is less than compelling.
Actually, as literature, the work’s value comes from the study of Gertrude. Kate MacCluggage offers a mesmerizing portrait of an independent woman who reconciles her desires with her obligations and lives a dutiful life. She is drawn to Claudius, who is worldly, witty and eloquent. But though the pair are dominated by their mutual attraction, neither act on it.
Fortunately, her husband King Amleth is a good man. He’s caring, honest, and dedicated to being a good ruler. It’s suggested he’s an indifferent lover, who craves the battlefield more than he does being a husband and father. He lusts for battle, not for his wife.
With Hamlet off to college, Amleth content with ruling his kingdom, and Claudius at Elsinore, Gertrude realizes the time to satisfy her desires has arrived. The two consummate their lust; the king discovers their adultery and Claudius takes action to have Gertrude for himself and his brother’s crown to boot.
Everyone should live happily ever after, except for the final scene when the king tells his son the facts of his murder.
But that’s a story for another day - which we all know doesn’t end well.
“Gertrude and Claudius” at Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, Mass., through August 3. For tickets and schedule information call 413-236-8888 or go to barringtonstageco.org.
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
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