I must confess that to a certain extent I always end up writing the same review of Howard Barker's plays. Words demand to be used such as "astringent", "moral", "interrogate" and (a particular favourite) "rigorous". The dramatic situation is always both extreme and bleak, the ethical issues (I'm trying to avoid the M-word) always inflexible and unflinchingly examined... oh, all right: rigorously interrogated, then. It's as if he were not so much a playwright as a genre unto himself.
I also usually feel that any spectator ends up lagging behind when watching a Barker play; it demands more, and more consistent, concentration than one is used to or perhaps even capable of giving. That sense, however, is thankfully absent from +13 Objects+, the latest touring production from the Barker-dedicated company The Wrestling School, currently at the Riverside Studios in London. This is probably because, as its title may suggest, it is not a single continuous play but a series of discrete scenes, without even the half-suggested framework linking the segments of Barker's otherwise similar +Wounds To The Face+.
The author refers to the component parts of +13 Objects+ as "short plays" (averaging ten minutes apiece). Yet... here's another departure... at times some of them almost feel like revue sketches; oh, in a very Barkerian revue, to be sure, but both as writer and director he is much more overtly sardonic than usual, even whilst showing us how ordinary objects - a tin medal, a postcard, a bucket of water - become imbued by us with both emotional and narrative significance. We create inferences, to which we then find ourselves in thrall. A baby, throwing its rattle out of the crib, explains to us(!) that this is a means of compelling adults to dance to his tune: like a sceptre, it is "the awful instrument of my authority". A young man who professes himself "an idealist" but is simply a pompous prig frets about how to use the camera he has been given, since nothing - not even he - is worthy of being recorded for posterity. And yet these scenes are often downright funny. It's not the laughter of contempt, either, but of resignation to absurdity. Nor does the laughter dilute the usual intense seriousness, just the earnestness, which is a different thing altogether.
One final difference: my Barker reviews have usually weaselled out of concluding with an unambiguous recommendation. Not this time: +13 Objects+ is an excellent introduction to his approach, and a welcome breather for more experienced viewers, until the next bout of sheer rigour.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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