I hereby humbly recant all reservations I have ever expressed about the plays of Howard Barker. I've often whinged here that that writer's work is too relentless in its poetic and intellectual density, that it simply demands too much of any audience. But Barker is a clear mountain spring compared to the brackish trough of this piece by suddenly ubiquitous playwright Torben Betts.
Around 1987, I'd say. Not the setting – which is early 16th-century Spain, at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella, and their half-mad daughter Juana. No, I mean the year in which this kind of stuff would have felt contemporary. Terry Davies' electro-dance score maybe a couple of years later, the script's reductive politicking a few years earlier, but it evens out at around the beginning of Thatcher's third term, when greed was not only good but on the way to becoming gospel. But it's still the old order being railed at here: Isabella enters like a Steve Bell cartoon of a patrician Tory grande dame, and wealth is just another aspect of autocratic power.
So anyway, there's dynastic marriage, the persecution of the Moors (onstage) and Jews (off), religion, revenge, widespread insanity of various kinds... really, I can't be bothered to explain it all, you'd be no better off for knowing it, and if you were watching the piece you'd have given up caring long before the three wearisome hours were up. Betts deploys the classic Shakespearean "bed-trick" of switching partners in the dark... twice; he also, I think, includes a Thyestean feast, serving up roast baby for dinner, though my attention was wandering by then. At any rate, he recycles from the best dramatists, and turns his material into strident mediocrity. What actors of the calibre of Pip Donaghy and Siobhan Redmond (as Ferdinand and Isabella) are doing here is quite baffling.
It's not the ideology of the play I object to, God knows; it's that Betts does it so much more harm than good by presenting it in such a crassly tub-thumping manner, although I fear he believes he's being quite clever. The world may not have moved on, but we have, to the extent that we need to hear such critique put freshly. This is stale, stale, stale. It's a play of ideas without the ideas.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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