Finborough Theatre, London SW10
Opened 19 January, 1999

The protagonist of The Early Hours Of A Reviled Man is a physician, scatological novelist and anti-Semite named Sleen. He is a version of the physician, scatological novelist and anti-Semite Louis-Ferdinand Céline. But no ordinary version this is Céline as written by Howard Barker. Céline and Barker together at last! Can you imagine it? If not, better perhaps not to try in the absence of adequate supervision.

Barker's 1988 radio play (here receiving its stage première) invests Sleen with a similar magnetism to that of Milton's Satan. As he makes his nocturnal way through an unnamed city, Sleen (Peter Marinker) acquires a number of followers a former mistress and muse of sorts, a student, an apprentice surgeon and a vagrant who castigate the remorselessness of his hate-filled vision yet find themselves unable to break free; the apprentice surgeon has even vowed to kill him before the night is out, yet never moves to do so. Even the apparent fissure in Sleen's contempt when he is reminded of his childhood and his mother turns out to be a form of sour self-indulgence.

This is another Barkerian essay on the morality of engagement with hateful ideas, their potential seductiveness and the temptations of complicity therein through insufficient action, be it physical or intellectual. It is characteristically dense and astringent, demanding at every moment more from an audience than mere passive consumption. As ever, Barker deals in cerebral rather than visceral passions, and Zoe Reason's production, for all that it emphasises the capillary of grim comedy running through the piece, does not lighten it in any sense not even the literal: the 55-minute performance is staged in varying tones of gloom.

Reason, her press release states, "is in the process of evolving a directing style that is appropriate to the challenge of Barker's work." In this case, sadly, the translation to the stage involves putting most of her cast of seven in black polo-necks and having them engage in a sporadic vocalise to represent the city's nocturnal background hum. Barker does indeed need to be seen in more varied contexts than simply the aspic of veneration of The Wrestling School, the company dedicated solely to his work, if his undoubted (albeit highly specialised) value as a playwright is to be fully recognised; on the evidence of this showing, however, Reason may not so much be broadening the author's appeal as simply creating a niche of her own for it.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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