This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com
Howard Barker was never destined to be the darling of Shaftesbury Avenue, but his work gives a bold and distinctive voice to British theatre. Robyn Winfield-Smith here brings together two of Barker’s one-act plays, both dealing with male-female conflicts. They embrace harsh beauty and cruel irony, demonstrating fully the writer’s power to captivate and shock. The Arcola’s smaller studio, with exposed brick walls and black dust scattered on the floor, has the look of a coal cellar, but the appearance is consigned to memory once the first play, The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo, begins. The space is plunged into complete darkness, interrupted very occasionally by brief bursts of light from the stage area. Howling winds can be heard throughout and the audience is provided with headphones through which to listen to the voices. The play concerns the marriage of centenarian Isonzo (voiced by Nicholas Le Provost) to 17-year-old Tenna (Emily Loomes). Both are blind. They probe, test and taunt each other in a discourse that often has the feel of an epic poem in blank verse. Barker challenges conventional perceptions based on age and appearance, playing upon the audience’s inevitable discomfort at this unlikely match. Winfield-Smith’s decision to get the audience to share in the characters’ sensory deprivation distracts from the play as often as it focusses attention on the text. The two voices are heard from left then right, near then far and stage directions need to be whispered in our ears. In effect, this production consists of little more than listening to a recording, albeit beautifully spoken, in darkness and what we expect in a theatre is more of a live performance. Judith: A Parting from the Body gets a conventional staging. Holofernes (Liam Smith) is an army general, boastful of his control over life and death and of his attraction to women. He is visited in his bedroom on the night before a battle by the widow Judith (Catherine Cusack) and her much too talkative servant (Kristin Hutchinson). Barker’s play is a meditation on love and death, truth and lies, heroism and treachery, exploring the links that connect them all. Cusack is particularly striking as the volatile and unpredictable Judith, switching instantly between helpless vulnerability and ruthless determination. Smith has an arrogant swagger as the general and Hutchinson finds humour in the barely suppressed insolence of the servant. Stark and unsettling, this double bill provides a powerful antidote to the festive fare currently being offered elsewhere.
Performance date: 27 November 2015