The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings
A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Gertrude and Claudius
By DL Simmons

Do you favor stories that end in tragedy?— Claudius
I favor stories where love is constant.— Gertrude
Kate MacCluggage and Elijah Alexander (Photo; Daniel Rader)
We need to talk about Hamlet. Has any other gloomy play sired so many bastard spawn? From Gilligan's Island's jaunty musical version to Tom Stoppard's impish deconstruction Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Shakespeare's text has proven a fertile stomping ground for writers eager to muck around with its plot and characters. In 2000 we got novelist John Updike's "prequel" to the Shakespearean tragedy, titled Gertrude and Claudius, about the lusty, wicked events leading up to Hamlet's curtain raiser.

To be fair, Shakespeare himself was re-telling an old tale. After researching the Bard's literary source, Updike discovered more than half the original plot had been dropped. Queen Gertrude's full backstory — both her arranged, loveless marriage to King Amleth (Hamlet's dad in pre-Ghost form) and her forbidden affair with his ne'er-do-well brother Claudius — became the spine of Updike's new narrative. Adultery, assassination and royalty — subjects with juice, ripe for squeezing.

Yet in spite of its lofty pedigree and noble ambition, the plot boils down to a tasteful bodice-ripper. As a play, Mark St.Germainn's adaptation has a long way to go before it can stand on its own merit, apart from Shakespeare or Updike. Barrington Stage Company has nonetheless mounted a bold, handsome production.

Right away, Lee Savage's castle set casts a foreboding spell with its gray columns and arches and flickering candlelight. Wagon-wheel chandeliers and royal banners fly in to differentiate locations within its towers, and a cyc visible behind the battlement crenulations lights up with brilliant shades of Elsinore's angry skies. With a thick haze of mist hovering over the stage throughout, David Lander's subdued lighting favors penetrating shafts to glaring spotlights — at times this production is visually stunning. Just when it seems Savage and Lander couldn't possibly top themselves, in flies a beam of eerily-lit, mounted deer heads signifying an ominous location change. Jaws will drop.

Sara Jean Toseti's costume design aims for resplendent mixing of gold brocades, leathers and fur, jewel-toned velvets, even some armor plating. Her color choices are somewhat unexpected — purples are matched with magentas, drab greens with teals, browns with blacks and eventually Santa Claus-reds. Anne Ford-Coates' wigs, with the exception of Gertrude's restrained locks, have an amusing life of their own. Amleth's hedgehog 'do in the first half is so crazy-bushy, it's almost a letdown to discover the actor's real hair (as revealed in Act Two) looks totally normal.

This reportedly marks the first presentation of St.Germainn's adaptation. If his play is to find an afterlife happier than Hamlet's ghost, he's got some editing to do. Act One, especially, has so many short expository scenes that a flowing rhythm never gets established. Julianne Boyd directs these brief vignettes with economy and efficiency, and she stages the lovers' written correspondence with nifty shorthand. (Think Love Letters compressed into a few terse exchanges.) But it's not until the second act before most scenes are given room to breathe, allowing characters to make discoveries on their own without having to impart plot pivots and circumstantial background.

From a dramatist's point of view, the greatest limitation of Updike's source material is his dubious notion that Gertrude and Claudius (and Amleth and Polonius) are actually swell people, far more virtuous than villainous. While that's quite a revisionist theory from a literary perspective, it lacks urgency as drama. Where's catharsis in nice people committing adultery and murder ever so reluctantly? Or in Gertrude's case, unwittingly?

If only James M. Cain had written the novel, we'd get hard-boiled pulp instead. A touch of The Postman Always Rings Twice, with its horny, immoral protagonists, is exactly what this tale of infidelity and conspiracy needs to come alive on stage. Instead, Updike and St.Germainn settle for a talky family counseling circle with proto-feminist undertones — plus one scene of chaste bodice-ripping that takes so long to arrive, we just want it over with so the drama can begin.

The burden of carrying Gertrude and Claudius falls on Kate MacCluggage, who dominates nearly every scene in this production. Hers is an intellectual, modernist Gertrude, clear of vision and pure of thought. And she's nobody's pushover in a family row. The character is also inert, given more to side-eye than subterfuge. MacCluggage maintains a regal air between flickers of temper, and she has a commanding stage presence. But as a woman whose crimes of passion could cost her her head, she's questionably chill. Instead of showing the queen's wanton heart, she wears a determined mask of gritted teeth, dimples and furrowed brow.

In the smaller role of Claudius, Elijah Alexander has an easier time of it. Loose-limbed and unafraid to swagger in unbuttoned tunics and leather breeches, he finds the character's sensual current and rides that wave to the finish line. He also brings self-aware humor to the role, which is a welcome relief . . . yet problematic because it makes the climactic, cold-blooded murder (which happens offstage, by the way!) feel out of character.

Douglas Rees (Amleth) and Rocco Sisto (Polonius) provide able support. Rees gives Amleth layers and depth, an odd choice perhaps given how many characters refer to Amleth as "not subtle." For a supposed boor, he displays a lot of nuance. As Gertrude's god-fearing attendant Herda, Mary Stout gets all the laugh lines and sells them like rimshots. But, of the entire cast, why is she the only character to age physically over the 30-year timeline? A few go gray in the second half, but Stout actually slows down. Nice attention to detail there.

For Hamlet and Shakespeare fans, is worthy of exploration. It may lack the mischievous wit and existential quandaries of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or at least hummable tunes, but it supplies a provocative framework for reinterpreting Shakespeare's Danish play. If only this "origin story" demonstrated the kind of fireworks to come in Part II — a/k/a Hamlet — it could be worthy of cannibalization itself someday. Apparently nothing is sacred in Denmark.

Search CurtainUp in the box below Back to Curtainup Main Page

Gertrude and Claudius by Mark St.Germainn
Based on the novel by John Updike
Directed by Julianne Boyd
Cast: Kate MacCluggage (Gertrude) Elijah Alexander (Claudius) Douglas Rees (Amleth) Mary Stout (Herda) Rocco Sisto (Polonius) Greg Thornton (King Rorik) Nick Lamedica (Hamlet)
Scenic Designer: Lee Savage
Choreographer: Barbara Allen
Costume Designer: Sara Jean Toseti
Lighting Designer: David Lander
Composer: Jenny Giering
Sound Designer: Lindsay Jones
Wig Designer: Anne Ford-Coates
Puppet Designer: Brandon Hardy
Production Stage Manager: Geoff Boronda
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes; one intermission
Barrington Stage Company, Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, Pittsfield, MA
From 7/18/19; closing 8/3/19
Reviewed by DL Simmons at July 21 performance

Highlight one of the responses below and click "copy" or"CTRL+C"
  • I agree with the review of Gertrude and Claudius
  • I disagree with the review of Gertrude and Claudius
  • The review made me eager to see Gertrude and Claudius
Click on the address link E-mail:
Paste the highlighted text into the subject line (CTRL+ V):

Feel free to add detailed comments in the body of the email. . .also the names and emails of any friends to whom you'd like us to forward a copy of this review.

For a feed to reviews and features as they are posted at to your reader
Curtainup at Facebook . . . Curtainup at Twitter

©Copyright 2019, Elyse Sommer.
Information from this site may not be reproduced in print or online without specific permission from