(UNCLE) VANYA
Almeida Theatre, London N1
Opened 19 June, 1996

What hell it must be to actually be Howard Barker: bent double by the weight of an intellectually interrogated morality, possessed by a Pentecostal tongue of fire compelling him to a sophistical glossolalia...

In fact, Barker's language is not all that knotty, but in as much as he uses it without respite as a tool of argument, lapses in concentration when watching a Barker play are fatal.  As Peter Cook's E.L. Wisty might have said: "He's a very rigorous playwright.  He's noted for his rigour.  People come staggering out, saying, 'Oh, my God, what a rigorous playwright.'"

Barker's "Notes On The Necessity For A Version Of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya" speak of the need "to demonstrate the existence of will in a world where will is relegated to the comic or the inept."  Hence, in this version directed at a consistent fever pitch by the author for The Wrestling School, the company dedicated to his work, and located by designer Robin Don in a steel vault reminiscent of the hold of the Titanic after it has sunk characters burst free of what Barker views as the immoral limitations imposed upon them by Chekhov.

Vanya (William Armstrong) shoots Serebryakov, Sonya (Claire Rushbrook) throttles Astrov (neither of which murders prevent the deceased from continuing to comment upon the state of affairs), and Helena (Victoria Wicks) embarks upon a passionate affair with Vanya, who significantly repudiates the diminutive form of his name and insists on being called Ivan.  At which point the sea materialises beyond the shattered walls of their metaphysical dungeon and washes up Chekhov himself, who is castigated at length by his characters for the crime of circumscribing them before he expires on a chaise longue.

Hardly your run-of-the-mill "what if...?" play, then, but one would not expect as little from Barker.  The thing is that his passion for humanity is largely at one remove from the quality itself; his characters expend much more time and energy inciting themselves to existential freedom than they do embracing it.

Barker is primarily a dramatic essayist, and his subject matter is in equal parts the moral necessity of accepting one's freedoms and the validity of using theatre to express as much.  In arguing that artistic works not just may, but in a sense must be turned toward such an end, he enables much of his audience to affect the very disengagement he despises: art about art, runs the response; navel-gazing; switch off.  It is only half the picture, but an artist who asks, "Is it not too much trouble to seduce?" will find that his theatrical "transactions" involve more haggling than many may care to commit themselves to.

Howard Barker is the moral proctologist of contemporary theatre: like his medical counterpart, he performs a valuable, arguably essential function, but I for one feel little urge to experience his trade directly.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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