Riverside Studios, London W6

Opened 1 October, 2009


The Wrestling School, the company dedicated to the plays of Howard Barker, is celebrating 21 years of existence “in the teeth of critical and bureaucratic hostility”. After the shock of my first exposure to Barker I have grown to respect and admire much of his work, with its unflinching moral rigour and stark refusal to let an audience off the hook for even an instant. However, it has been a few years since I last crossed paths with the company, and on this showing he has refined his approach almost out of existence. The trademarks are all present: visual and aural astringency, a world in shards (usually during or after a grisly war), an enclosed environment with a number of vicious and irresolvable personal discords within it. But beyond that, nothing: no events, no dilemmas, nothing except the unremitting condition of devalued desire, articulated depravity and a kind of elegant apocalypse. The (wonderful) mechanical dogs, (curiously coy) quartet of urinating nurses and (challengingly low-key) late appearance of Hitler neither relieve matters nor add any kind of form or shape to them.
In some ways this is Barker’s take on Beckett’s Endgame: a wheelchair-bound domestic tyrant ordering his household around in the aftermath of, effectively, everything. In this case, former war crimes judge Lord Toonelhuis appears to exist on a diet of the mortal remains of middle-ranking Nazis, and employs a librarian to oversee not the cataloguing of the rare book collection he has painstakingly built up but its immolation, in A to Z order. Librarian, servants, nurses and a bunch of undefined women (including one who periodically walks across upstage topless in a hat which conceals her face, declaiming, “I am all the Anne Franks!”) get on each other’s nerves for nearly an a hour and a half, then Toonelhuis dies and things take another half-hour to grind to a halt.
There are numerous lapidary pronouncements on life, art and culture, and a whole raft of Nazi imagery and allusions, but none of them seem to connect with anything either within the world of the play or beyond it. Barker seems increasingly to believe that the more dissatisfaction he elicits, the more he must be doing something right; he might do well to recollect that this isn’t especially valid as a general principle and to question why he thinks he might be an exceptional case.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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