Beautiful, thoughtful and insightful direction is often the last thing one notices about the performance of a play. Dazzling dialogue, a clever and attractive set design, marvellously evocative lighting, beautiful costumes, mercurial actors shining as they fence with each other’s skills and talents – often, these are the big ticket items which attract, rightly, immediate approbation. This is all true of The Print Rooms’s production of Howard Barker’s In The Depths Of Dead but the really breath-taking thing about the production is Gerrard McArthur’s stylish, eloquent and brightly polished direction. Both whimsical and brutal, McArthur’s vision is remarkable, and it will stay with you long after you leave the theatre.
Exile / there are worse things / and I am not convivial / As for poetry / without the approval of polite society / the dedication of distinguished scholars / and the flagrant misbehaviour of bored women / who / Transformed / apparently / by the encounter with my work / and yet further dislocated by their intimacy with me / somehow lacked the curiosity to discover my whereabouts / and it’s no secret / whist the emperor exiled / he did not abolish / me / I’ve ceased writing it.
The first time we see her, she seems shrunken, older, frail. Her clothes are regal, as is her hair, but she seems trussed up, confined, unable to fly. She peers at the well with a haunted, hunted gaze that might speak of rapture, might speak of fear, might speak of hope – or perhaps all of that and more. Unspoken complexity in a single glance.
The next day, she returns. Untrussed in almost every way, or so it seems. Her step is more sprightly; her hair is down, a radiant cascade; her clothes are brighter, more insinuatingly sensual; her eyes, still wary, sparkle differently, fear absent, expectation heightened. She carries her parasol, and puts it down on the single rock, with an almost girlish precision. The unspoken complexity is now startlingly different.
Only the well, with its bottomless expectations, its singular black eye glaring insolently, expectantly, indifferently, at the sky, is unchanged. It stands still while all around it change – one way or another.
This is Howard Barker’s new play, In The Depths Of Dead Love, having its world premiere season at the indomitable Print Room in Notting Hill. It’s a dazzling piece of writing, a delicious waltz of words, romantic, sensuous, gripping, cynical, witty, interrogating and reflective. But more than that – it is an intensely luscious ode on topics taboo – and humanity and it’s fascinating facets.
The play started its life in a BBC radio version in 2014, with a starry cast – Richard E Grant, Francesca Annis, Michael Bertenshaw and Jane Bertish. That outing was interesting, humorous even, but the piece did not seem arresting or especially compelling. Having seen Gerrard McArthur’s physical production, the reason for the ambivalent reaction to the radio version is clear – Barker’s play is as visual as it is verbal, and when both aspects are in proper play, the result is quite intoxicating.
The design work – set, costumes, lighting and sound – is impeccable and quite brilliant. It’s hard to believe that the Print Room’s budget stretches to large amounts, but the work here seems as though serious money has been spent. Something quite splendid has emerged from nothing.
Justin Nardella’s scenic design is spare, sexy and simple. When we first see it, the well has a lid and, oyster shell like, it opens magnificently, promising rich rewards. Chains lift the lid high, and it hangs suspended, above the open well, a tarnished mirrored interior reflecting back into the world the interior of the bottomless well.
At one point, tea is served from the heavens – a cup and saucer descends from above with the help of a silver chain. It’s exotic, old fashioned and modern all at once – a scent of charm infused in a moment of service. Just as all aspects of the design serve the sleek complicated wordplay. Simplicity and complexity hand in hand.
This could be the empire where Sleeping Beauty slumbered, or where The Feathered Serpent was worshipped, or where Thor’s hammer might have swung: ancient, the stuff of fables, decaying, singular. Accessible but indeterminate. A place you know but don’t know. Utterly beguiling.
Adrian Sandvaer’s lighting is almost another character in the drama. Sepulchral darkness hovers insistently near the well and its human supplicants, blooming in inky suddenness and dispersing when harsh directed brilliant light strikes like lightning, withdrawing when the fresh rays of renewal snake into prominence.
Shade accentuates character, depending on who is near the well. Individual moments are bathed in their especial luminescence – the moment when Chin is holding onto Lady Hasi’s arm after she has embraced the well’s promise is seared into memory by the light. Sandvaer’s use of gloom is unerringly apt, colouring the thoughts and words of the characters, changing the mood instantaneously as required.
The effect of the lighting is so profound, making Nardella’s costumes and set sparkle and wither and shudder and smirk, as the occasion warrants, that Ed Lewis’ insistent and colourful sound design seems part of the different shades in which the action basks. Occasionally blunt, sometimes insistent, now and then piercing, Lewis’ soundscape is subtle and all pervading – it is difficult to imagine the whole without his insinuating cacophony.
The costumes are quite perfect, from the many layers of Jane Bertish’s wonderfully salty Mrs Hu, a character who might next take over the Queen Victoria pub in Eastenders, to the intensely seductive black gloves that Lady Hasi wears. As soon as you see those gloves, you know there is a story about them, that they will be significant. And they are. Every detail of the costumes adds pleasure to the experience – perhaps none more than the sight of the final outfit Lady Hasi wears as she treks, or, perhaps, skips to the well. Delicious stuff.
Chin commands the bottomless well. He allows people, on payment of a small fee, to take their life by accepting the well’s eternal embrace. Lady Hasi comes regularly to the well, but never has the determination to take the final plunge. She seems to be sick and tired of her loveless marriage, wanting a final release.
Chin is a poet in exile, a man who can’t bear students (one constantly haunts the perimeter of, and gate to, the well, hoping for a discount, incurring Chin’s vehement disapproval) but who loves words: a man who needs the right word always, especially if action is required. His poetic sensibility rails at push or shove, but topple…now there’s the rub. Perhaps.
Because of his exile, Chin says he has abandoned his poetry. Yet, he speaks with florid ease and chooses his delicious words with care. His debates with himself about language are very funny, but his stated position and his actual language are at odds – a theme that snakes, perhaps canters, through other aspects of the tale.
Chin says he will not use his gifts to intervene, either to encourage or discourage, those who would pay to become one with the well. But Lady Hasi’s regular appearances at the well, and her consequent regular payments, shift his position. Does he come to love her, this enigmatic aristocrat who says she knows not love or the touch of another human being (and has not for years)?
Another creature of the shadows is Lord Ghang, Lady Hasi’s stiffly formal, grimly menacing husband. He wants Chin to assist his wife’s journey into the well, whether by push or shove. The question is why? Does he love her still and want for her the fate she wants? Does he want simply to be rid of her? Does he want to compromise Chin by setting him up for a murder charge? Or is something else at play?
In The Depths Of Dead Love is probably as close to a comedy of manners – or even a sit-com – as Barker is ever likely to get. The writing is bright and spiky, extremely funny in parts, as well as poetic and occasionally obtuse. There are red herrings and slow reveals, and things are seldom as they might first seem. The unravelling is terrific, and there are real instances of surprises that catch the breath.
At times, Lord Ghang and Lady Hasi reminded me of an upper class version of TV’s George and Mildred; at other times, I was struck that this might be an imagining of a world where Earnest and Gwendolyn (from Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest) spend their final years, living near a well presided over by Eliza Dolittle’s father and Mrs Higgins (from Shaw’s Pygmalion). They may be in an imagined setting, but the sense of the characters seemed very familiar. Despite their names, there is nothing Chinese about these people.
Barker is no stranger to distancing devices. Language and setting achieve distance here just as easily as the type of language and the way it is spoken. Taboo topics add to this effect: the hunger for suicide; the beauty in suicide; the humour in suicide; the pain in love; the futility of deception; the irresistibly of death; the secrets of long marriage.
Each of the four actors (James Clyde, Stella Gonet, Jane Bertish and William Chubb) uses their voice like a weapon, assaulting Barker’s text and subduing it, bending it to their will. It has been some time since language so beautifully and mellifluously spoken has been heard on a London stage. The whole effect is symphonic, exultant: magnificent phrases, wrapped in glorious vocal dexterity and power, wring passion, both hot and cold, from the need for change, for transcendence. The vocal energy here is electrifying, subtle and savage at once.
McArthur conducts all this musicality of language with the commitment and verve of Bernstein, finding every grace note, adding every trill and sounding every trumpet. At the same time, he ensures the visuals have their own almost Caravaggio intensity.
There is a moment when the student, mostly talked about and unseen, interrupts Chin and Lady Hasi in a dramatic and dynamic way; another when a black glove floats to oblivion, Lady Hasi’s eyes shimmering with sensual expectation; another when Lord Ghang takes an unexpected, urgent decision; another when Mrs Hu reminds Chin about his unfamiliarity with the secrets of the bedchamber of a married couple. Each of these, and many others, such as the arrival of tea, seem like moments captured in vivid, rich paintings by old masters – fresh, immediate, colourful and ageless.
Clyde is in astonishing form as Chin, making him the personification of the artistic struggle (art versus existence) as well as fiercely comic and splutteringly self-contradictory. His mastery of the language and committed physicality is exemplary. Its a performance for the history books.
Gonet is equally astonishing, every thought gracefully and simply conveyed, every thorn of uncertainty etched clearly in her halting speech or movement. She carries herself with desperate dignity and is a perfect foil for Clyde’s initially detached Chin. Hypnotic glamour is to be found in her throaty vocal tones, but her silences are equally eloquent, whether pained or expectant. She gives Barker the full classical treatment and both he and the audience reap real rewards as a result.
In some ways, Chubb’s Lord Ghang is the character most expected in a Barker piece: a menacing brute of a man slow to reveal himself. Chubb manages this effortlessly, utilising his superb voice as an easy establishing mechanism and ensuring his tight, ruthlessly elegant physicality underlines his potential for darkness, or weary burdens. His position in the narrative seems so obvious because of Chubb’s diligence that the final scene in which he appears is truly startling. Happily.
Hustling and bustling, eyes ever watchful, voice injected with exuberant, fussy detail, Bertish’s Mrs Hu is sheer delight. Almost single-handedly she ensures that the audience is always aware of the comic potential, the whimsical observation, that is ever present around and in the bottomless well. Her sense of life and its limits and rules is complete and Bertish infuses Mrs Hu’s every moment with uncompromising honesty, twinkling knowledge. She is truly blissful.
There is nothing not to like here. The text is difficult, metaphoric and uncompromising but McArthur’s production opens it up, lets it soar and surprise as well as intrigue and challenge. If you like your theatre literal, safe, and spoon fed, In The Depths Of Dead Love is not for you. But if you want theatre that confronts, grips, amuses and exhilarates then rush, perhaps hurtle, to the Print Room.