One of Gary Larson's more eloquent cartoons shows a schoolboy asking his teacher: "Please, sir, may I be excused? My brain is full." Despite my best efforts, this continues to be my response to Howard Barker. The more deeply I come to admire Barker – to repudiate the facile sneering of my first encounters with his work, and to value him as a one-man necessary corrective against the unapologetic triviality of most contemporary theatre and the self-important belief of the rest that ideological attitudinising is a valid substitute for moral engagement – the guiltier I feel that I cannot actually like his plays, or even stay the intellectual course through them. For the degree of focus required is literally superhuman: you simply cannot keep yourself so relentlessly on the ball, and once you lapse even for a moment, you're playing catch-up for the rest of the time.
So I can say that Und, Barker's latest production for his dedicated company The Wrestling School, busies itself with the perennial Barkerian themes of individual complicity with evil and the complexities of self-image; that on this occasion it seems filtered through a vaguely early-Nazi milieu, as an aristocratic young woman of the old style muses upon her relationship with a man (never seen) whose job – or vocation? – is apparently to persecute and torture Jews; that she seems by turns to believe that she and her class can ride the tiger he represents, and to register intimations that they are already in fatal eclipse. I can note that this young man's force is external to Und's contemplations as well as to the action on stage: she seems to consider him only as a modifier of her self-perception, as if the almost incessant noises off – harsh electrical bells, gentler handbells, the smashing glass of Und's own windows, the sound of a man weeping – and the objects (a tea-tray, a bunch of flowers, a note) flown in on steel trapezes in Tomas Leipzig's glinting, brutalist set are mere cues for fascinated, complacent self-analysis rather than the signs of a world elsewhere with its own agendas. I can wonder whether her occasional remarks of "I am not an aristocrat; I am a Jew" are to be taken at face value, as self-aggrandising role-play or more profound metaphor. But I cannot with any certainty say what the play is actually about or even what happens, constantly dogged as I am by the shameful feeling that, had my mind not wandered for that first instant about a quarter of the way into the play's 80 minutes, all might somehow be clear. All right, then: clearer.
Melanie Jessop gives a bright, stark, controlled performance as Und, and the author's direction seems more assured than the last time I encountered it. Of course, Barker would not be Barker if he diluted the intensity of his discourse, but the sheepish feeling persists that, in terms of philosophical impact per hour of exposure, less might be more.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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