In terms of narrative, Howard Barker's He Stumbled is more or less The Dissector's Contract. As in Peter Greenaway's first feature film, an outsider is admitted into a small and rarefied circle to execute a commissioned task, only to find himself sexually suborned by several of the group and enmeshed in obscure plots of Byzantine complexity which lead eventually to his death; where Greenaway dealt with a draughtsman in late seventeenth-century England, Barker's protagonist is an internationally renowned embalmer called upon to do the honours to the deceased king of an unnamed European realm. Even Greenaway's chattering Poulenc twins have their analogue in Barker's play in occasional choric outbursts by pairs of dead, disembodied heads.
However, in Barker even more than in Greenaway, narrative is secondary if not tertiary. What matters principally is the knotty and unremitting moral engagement with truth and responsibility, both as general principles and in innumerable particular facets. When anatomist Doja finds himself ensnared by pretty much every other character on stage (royals, clerics and servants alike), it is partly a consequence of his previous habit of "keeping [his] intimacy for the dead", partly a consequence of his having abandoned that mode of existence for moments of gratification. At bottom, Doja – like so many other Barker characters; like, the author implies, all of us – is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. It is the rigour with which one maintains and/or interrogates one's position in which true mettle is shown.
Barker-dedicated company The Wrestling School's ensemble approach pays dividends in terms of actors' familiarity with Barker's dramatic and philosophic register: the likes of Victoria Wicks and Julia Tarnoky slot smoothly into place in their respective roles, and Ian Pepperell ably negotiates the complexity of playing a fifteen-year-old boy who nevertheless speaks almost entirely in Barkerisms. As Doja, William Chubb intersperses the disintegration of his temperamental and moral assurance with moments of comic frenzy, and Syd Brisbane is a more than useful addition from Australia to the ranks of this hemisphere's Barkerians. Barker as a director is adept at translating his authorial intentions to the stage, and in the steely astringency of Tomas Leipzig's set designs he has found a perfect visual foil. However, despite my best efforts and my growing admiration for Barker, I continue to feel guilty that I cannot seem to stay the intellectual course through his plays. The degree of focus required is literally superhuman: you simply cannot keep yourself so relentlessly on the ball, and once you lapse even for a moment, you're playing catch-up for the rest of the time. One too often feels like the schoolboy in the Gary Larson cartoon, asking his teacher: "Please, sir, may I be excused? My brain is full."
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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