The work of playwright Howard Barker – "complex, poetic and demanding on both actors and audience alike", as the programme notes have it – inspires admiration, respect, even reverence in certain quarters, but common-or-garden liking is not, it seems, an option. No doubt Barker would scorn such an insipid sentiment in any case; it is not dense, knotty or toothsome enough. Last year's production by The Wrestling School (the company dedicated to staging Barker's works) of his (Uncle) Vanya brought to mind Peter Cook's E.L. Wisty character: "People came staggering out, saying, 'Oh, my God, what a rigorous play.'"
Wounds To The Face, staged at Stella Artois Assembly as part of its Edinburgh Fringe theatre bill, contains similar moral and intellectual preoccupations, but is altogether less daunting – partly, perhaps, because rather than consisting of a grinding continuous narrative it takes the form of a number of more or less discrete scenes, bearing titles such as "The Holy Orders Of A Terrorist" and "The Collaborator Reserves Part Of Himself". Occasionally – mirabile dictu – the Edinburgh audience even dares to laugh, having detected the odd, brief gout of humour in Barker's lines.
The theme is the tyranny of image, the oppressive insistence that outward form dictates identity. Characters (some of whom recur in several scenes) include a woman fixated upon a mirror bemoaning her imagined deformities, another terrified to look at herself after twenty years' confinement "in a hole... without a mirror", a reconstructive surgeon labelled "a critic of God" (as I shifted uncomfortably in my seat) and a man half of whose face has been blown off in a grenade attack and whose mother rejoices (insofar as joy is a Barkerian emotion) that once again she will be the only one to love him. This being Barker, of course, there are rumblings of a revolution in the background, so that for instance the grenade victim may in fact be an insurrectionist whose act of violence misfired against him. One or two historical scenes are interposed: a masked man in the Bastille, a despotic emperor and the artist who had the effrontery to paint a lifelike portrait of him. Posters of a dictator's likeness are displayed, repeatedly torn down and defaced upstage.
The cast of seven, under Stephen Wrentmore's direction, submit themselves devoutly to Barker's fibrous, sinewy writing as he negotiates the labyrinthine metaphysics of image-fascism. The prospect of treading the same maze for ourselves rather than being led through it by the nose may be daunting for an audience, but at 95 minutes ought not to be insuperable. Enter the theatre prepared to work, and you will be furnished with an abundance of material; even I begin now to see Barker's... no, "appeal" is still the wrong word...
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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