The Web site warns, "This play contains nudity, explicit language and extreme moral speculation". A couple of years ago, the sign outside the auditorium read, "Tragedy is a sacred art. If you do not understand the sacred, do not enter the theatre. – Please, absolutely no food, drinks or mobile phones in the theatre." I don't think playwright Howard Barker is taking this rigour business entirely in earnest any more.
In fact, I think that last year's 13 Objects and the current production by The Wrestling School, the company dedicated to staging Barker's works, put him in more or less the position of Leonard Cohen in the late 1980s: the seriousness and craft are all still present, but the rest of the world is beginning to realise that the old morose image isn't the whole picture, and the artist in turn is responding with more overt humour. Dead Hands has exactly the kind of breathing space I have long begged for in Barker plays: the moral dimension is always in front of us, as usual, but we don't feel the glare of an intellectual anglepoise lamp directed straight into our eyes the whole time.
The feel of the piece may have loosened up, but the look and sound are typical of the playwright's own productions. Tomas Leipzig's set is less extreme than some – an array of shabby mirrors, with a corpse laid out on one of them – but the acting is periodically punctuated by blasts of Stockhausen. Actor Justin Avoth, who is on stage virtually for the entire uninterrupted one-and-three-quarter-hour duration of the play (and who gets that most un-Barkerian moment, a solo curtain call at the end), has a comically precious style of delivery which injects levity but conversely also detracts from the gravity of his lines as Eff, returned home to mourn his father and suddenly in love with the dead man's mistress, who has already been dallying with Eff's brother.
There are many deliciously absurd moments in this musing upon grief, desire and power; I suspect that even the aphorism "Beauty is a thing seized on a landing when ugliness is halfway up the stairs" is self-parodic. The patterning of the language feels Beckettian, although Beckett would probably not choose a passage about "her whole cunt in my mouth: the flesh, the fluid, the hair" as a leitmotiv. It's something of a departure for Barker, and refreshing, yet also, by his standards, rather slight. Huh, give me just what I ask for and I'm not satisfied with it: that's my moral inadequacy highlighted, all right.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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