To paraphrase a line I heard onstage a couple of years ago: "Imagine being Peter Barnes!" This is a man who, admirably, believes that no subject is too grim for humour – indeed, that the bleaker the surroundings, the more correspondingly necessary it becomes for relief; a man who, in the second act of his play Laughter!, anticipated by years (and with much greater mordancy) Roberto Benigni's Oscar-winning audacity in daring to smile at Auschwitz; but a man who has fallen out of theatrical taste, whose programme note frankly admits that "I happen to need all the ado I can get" and seems to show the ever more precarious balance of laughter against a despair which threatens to obliterate even articulacy. His first major play to be produced since the turn of the decade demonstrates the same indelicate imbalance.
Dreaming follows a group whose lives have been harrowed by the Wars of the Roses: Mallory, who has lost his family and yearns to have yesterday back; Skelton, morbidly desperate for death; Susan, the last survivor of her family, whose life is sought by Richard of Gloucester, and so on. We first follow Mallory's quest to his ruined home, then the group reunites to seek in common their individual dreams. Gloucester, cold and ruthless as ever (although comically subverting the lines given him by Shakespeare – "Why can I never find a horse?"), pursues them for interfering with his own schemes, and one by one they drop away. Barnes shows us a land of poverty, oppression, plague and casual death; Stephen Brimson Lewis's design sets the action on a circular rostrum beneath whose clear surface can be seen an assortment of gory, mangled bodies and limbs. Both literally and figuratively, the whole play is grounded on a bloody illusion: that after the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, "after twenty years and more, the carnage is over" – we have to bear the crushing historical knowledge that these characters underestimate matters by a decade and more.
The play is, in short, a reprise of his Red Noses only without the laughs. To be sure, a number of gags crop up, but for every one that raises a smile of relieved amusement, two more elicit perfunctory smirks of age-old familiarity and a further half-dozen are just uncomfortably laboured. The songs, too, are deliberately written to be trite (and deliberately given matching melodies by Stephen Deutsch) but come over as excessively banal even for their purpose. Matthew Lloyd's production boasts an impressive company, headed by Gerard Murphy, Dilys Laye and Greg Hicks, but the moments of greatest truth seem to come in a succession of farewell speeches by the newly dead. Indeed, Dreaming is not merely a counsel of despair against the futility of such cherished hopes, but a two-and-a-quarter-hour memento mori. Either Barnes has given up on laughter or, yet more tragically, it has given up on him.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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