Direction, sound scheme, lighting and costume all combine in In The Depths Of Dead Love to provide some exquisitely beautiful tableaus that linger on the retinas of the audience and resonate with the accompanying text, delivered with a measured hieratic, almost liturgical, ceremony that for all its formality is very affecting.
Juxtaposition is everything, and transgression is everything in all art forms, of the dramatic kind, if you are a creator and not merely a describer of the world. I like things that are uncomfortable, because once it is entered, this discomfort becomes strangely beautiful, outside the realm of ethics, except the ethic that insists on the beautiful.
[Howard Barker, interviewed by David Dudley]
Howard Barker’s ninety-minute play dates from 2012 and was originally produced (without controversy) on BBC Radio 3 in the following year. In some ways it is an untypical work. Much of his best writing (such as the excellent double bill The 12th Battle of Isonzo & Judith: A Parting from the Body performed recently at the Arcola) works up a storm of elegant, fizzing rhetorical dialectic within a dramatic context that simultaneously confronts the audience with a reductive physicality, a superfluity of bodily fluids and flesh pressed to its limits and beyond that is deliberately unsettling and disturbing. It is almost as though Shaw were haranguing us from an abbatoir depicted by Goya. The action can be exhilarating and surprising and disconcertingly original at its best, or it can be tiresomely dull and pretentious as one under-explained, unearned and unjustified horror after another accumulates in a setting devoid of any traditional meaning. This, for better and for worse, is ‘theatre of catastrophe.’
This particular play operates on a more restricted emotional and intellectual palette, water colours, not acrylics; and that is largely to its advantage. While there is still deliberate disruption of expectations and a bait-and-switch approach to development of character, there is also a lucid meditation on death and erotic love amidst lavish word play, all set off against a minimalist, abstract backcloth of great beauty that recalls the Beckett of Happy Days. As the director says in his programme note, out of need and hopelessness there can still come a form of transcendence.
As so often in Barker’s work there is an historical setting, in this case, ‘Ancient China’, but that is only a starting point, and a very bare and underdetermined one at that. The location of the play is as bleak as bleak can be, or as one of the characters describes it: ‘It is the least distinguished place on earth, and uncoloured, and untitled on the maps, unmeasured by the army, unvalued by the tax authority’.
We are by a well in a blank desert, where sits a well-keeper Chin (James Clyde), formerly a poet exiled by an emperor (like Ovid in Augustan Rome) to lands of inertia. The ‘bottomless’ well acts as a draw to potential suicides who pay a fee for use, and another fee if they leave with the deed undone – ‘a tax on cowardice.’ The well-keeper has given up words and does not seek use his rhetoric to influence those who come to use the services of the well.
The action begins as Lady Hasi (Stella Gonet) arrives twirling a parasol: she is a regular visitor, more interested in communing with herself through the medium of the well than seriously embracing what it offers. Much of the play concerns her dialogues with Chin, who becomes increasingly enamoured of her and jealous of her partnership with her husband Lord Ghang (Williams Chubb). The latter, however, urges Chin to intervene and engage in a little assisted suicide by ‘shoving’ Hasi over the edge in order to end their sexless and (apparently) loveless marriage.
Chin agonises over whether he has the right to make such an intervention: much of his rumination focuses on language – how if Ghang had used prettier language than ‘shove’, ‘barge’, ‘tip’, or ‘drag’- perhaps ‘tug’ or ‘topple’ – then he might have found the action easier to carry out. He has the poet’s care for precision in diction and that carries over to his own life choices. Regulations of language are a source of support in a world of loneliness: ‘civility is a consolation in such a desert’.
Woven in and around these meditations are comic interventions by a student, the occasion for several good jokes around student stereotypes, and comic, shrewd asides from Chin’s housekeeper Mrs Hu (Jane Bertish), the kind of canny, sly housekeeper-type who inhabits the world of Coward and Rattigan more frequently than ‘Ancient China.’ Most of the actors and the director are regular collaborators with Barker from the days of the much lamented Wrestling School and are therefore fully to the pitch of the structural and rhetorical demands of the piece. They all segue with skill from high-flown poetic flights of fancy, to abstract philosophical discussion, and down-to-earth comedy.
Pacing and pauses fall into place with musical precision. Direction, sound scheme, lighting and costume all combine too to provide some exquisitely beautiful tableaus that linger on the retina of the audience and resonate with the accompanying text, delivered with a measured hieratic, almost liturgical, ceremony that for all its formality is very affecting.
The fact that this is essentially a Wrestling School production ensures that there is a control and uniformity of vision that is fully in line with Barker’s verbal and visual intentions, and great credit belongs with director Gerrard McArthur for realising the potential of this piece so fully and faithfully, thereby demonstrating that there is so much more here than can be delivered through a simple radio performance or reading.
Among the performances Chubb’s gnomic, abrupt and authoritative Lord Ghang stands out as the quintessential Barker male character – unpredictable, ultimately unknowable and very intimidating. His carefully freighted delivery combines elegance and menace, two qualities at the heart of the Barker aesthetic.
Gonet’s Lady Hasi starts off as distant and unknowable too, but in a very disdainful Downton Abbey way, before broadening out her emotional range as the play progresses. Jane Bertish has great fun bustling around as Mrs Hu, but scores her points when she needs to, for example in gently pointing out that Chin really does not understand how the dynamic between couples actually works.
Clyde has the hardest task, and he embraces all aspects of the challenge: he captures Chin’s hidden romantic desperation, his love of language, his self-absorption, and his restless experience of exile. Some of the final speeches could have been invested with a wider dynamic range of passion, anger and resentment, but overall this was a well-modulated incarnation of the role.
The other contributors on the creative team are very important to the success of the whole. Justin Nardella’s set is an exercise in thoughtful and beautifully executed minimalism, with the well a smooth annulus offering a warm, welcoming glow from within, and a partially polished lid which when raised up on chains doubled as a mirror and a moon. The other items in view, a shabby chair and a bare rock perch, were enough, just as in a classic traditional production of Racine, to give the actors all the space and support they needed.
There was a very sympathetic lighting scheme from Adrian Sandvaer that blew hot and cold with the language of the text, and an excellently varied sound scheme from Ed Lewis that was ‘full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.’ In fact, in a moment of ironic harmony, it blended rather well with the distant songs of the protestors outside, so that it was hard to tell where one ended and the other seamlessly began.
In conclusion it is worth reflecting for a moment on why Barker’s work has had a much more enthusiastic response in Europe than here, and has not attracted, so far as I know, the kind of criticism that has been directed at this production. The fabular format with its tangential relationship to historical setting has long been a staple of the tradition of regietheater.
The disassembling of traditional character and causation as a starting point on a journey away from realism towards abstraction is understood and familiar in the tradition of European theatre in a way it is not here. One hopes that one final product of the penumbra of debate around this production may be a better understanding of what Barker is trying to do and what he is not, and where a proper context for his work may be found.