It’s exciting that the university and theatre have found a way of making this research and work happen. Click here for info about the collaboration.
I haven’t managed to find any reviews yet. It’s hard to know where to start with a response. Especially as I find describing what I saw on stage boring, and anyway I can’t do justice to it.
Like the initial sequence of a choir of doctors punctuating the silence with ‘Kryie Eleison’ conducted by a naked woman conducted by a man limping across the space.
The space was huge and bare. Like a warehouse, the side lights were visible. It felt like there was a whole world behind the performance space too.
Sometimes props came down from the ceiling, like trees at the end and torn garments (doctors’ coats?) at the beginning. But basically the space was empty.
But not empty. Not really ‘stripped back’ either, in the sense that other productions feel stripped back leaving the words to work too hard. Because the theatrical images were so strong, they filled the space. And because Barker’s writing is so strong it never struggles for a second. I think the difference between this and the ‘stripped back’ new writing productions I’ve seen recently (e.g. by the ATC) is that this production was entirely connected to the writing, it was collaborating with the text rather than scared of it.
Barker directed, and the actors completely inhabited the words and the characters. They were in total control of their craft. They visibly relished the chance to get their voices around these words. It felt like I was seeing actors act for the first time in my life. I mean ‘act’ in the positive sense. With their whole bodies. Yes – artifice – not naturalism. The world that was created was a whole world, not trying to comment on our world, not trying to be ‘realistic’, but entirely theatrical.
The Queen (Eko) only communicated in song or through a female attendant. Eko’s voice was amplified somehow, using a bone conductor microphone perhaps? Several of the actors (I’d give their names but can’t find them anywhere – apart from Shaun Dooley off the tele who was fantastic as ‘Tot’ the talented poor poet) had incredible vocal ranges and resonances. The melody and rhythm of the writing was stretched out in the delivery. The couple of different accents/approaches to the text – Dooley’s and the London gun renter – enlivened the writing, made it communicate more directly, revealed the nuances to it and the shades and humour within the characters. Made it more dangerous in a way; RP can be too smooth.
Here’s the blurb from the flyer:
Imagine a world in which they’ve killed all the doctors in order to let the poets become the healers. In this place of desire, violence and beauty the story of a Queen’s lifelong passion for her servant plays itself out against the backdrop of a broken realm.
There are two poets in this world, one’s an idiot and wins the Queen’s poetry prize each year and the other (Tot) is brilliant, never wins and lives in poverty, robs a post office, goes to prison, loses an arm (no doctors) comes out and at the end commits suicide. Which makes it sound simple but it’s not really told quite like that.
There are many layers and lots of elements I can’t explain. Such as one of the women constantly collapsing, the strange swing at the back of the space – brilliant image, reminded me of one of Heiner Muller’s impossible(?) stage directions: ‘on a swing, the Madonna with breast cancer’ (Hamletmachine)
It raised questions about what artists need to make art. Do we need support, funding, recognition, money? The strange despotic Queen reckoned the poet wrote better when struggling and incarcerated, and that the singer’s best work would come from the experience of death…Do we need struggle and suffering to make art?
& I loved this idea that the world had become silent through drugs and injections and pain killers…that somehow those screams and the noises of pain create a kind of poetry…
Just before the interval the rich poet handed the poor poet money, but he didn’t let go so they were each holding onto this paper money fighting each other with poetry. Words used as weapons. Made a fantastic montage/soundscape.
Then it was the interval and I felt shaky and a bit sick. First time in ages that theatre has affected me physically.
Just before going back in a fellow writer told me she was only staying for the second half as she was hoping they were going to tell her what was going on. It’s strange to me – that you might need to know what the story is in order to enjoy the work. There was a story, it was pretty clear, but we were never given a lecture about how it came to be and what the characters thought about it…they were too in it.
I suppose the story of Blok and Eko was pulled out in the second half. Blok was the servant and song writer. Brilliant actor – an intense way of speaking with head down and eyes piercing up at us.
Usually my mind wanders in the theatre. I think I was gripped partly because I wasn’t being spoon fed, it was a new experience, pushing at the edges of theatre –something was happening. I haven’t seen any of Barker’s previous productions but, unlike some of the later work of other legends – Robert Wilson, the Wooster Group, Richard Foreman…it felt that there was nothing formulaic about this. He’s still taking risks.
So why isn’t this work on at The National? Why aren’t there any reviews of it? Why are theatres censoring playwrights? Why this obsession with naturalism and story and character? I recently read:
It’s exhausting to still be repeating admonitions by Witkacy, by Artaud, by Tristan Tzara. Didn’t Gertrude Stein fight this battle already? Didn’t John Cage?’ (Helen Shaw, foreword to Mac Wellman’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field )
On the topic of what is too much or too little on stage (part of Barker’s current research) I wasn’t convinced by the choruses. Partly because – although they performed very well – I was too aware that they were students; they looked too young, too studenty. And because the core actors were so strong anyone else on stage was diminished. Perhaps it would work better in a larger theatre, with more exploration of the choreography. There’s lots more that could be done with their vocal parts too, soundscapes created with the chorus rather than on a soundtrack would be great. And I’m not a fan of geometric marching and sudden right angles…or futurist hats…
Female nudity was quite a feature. The initial image of the naked conductor was brilliant. Nudity was used several times, and always impacting. It seemed to be saying something…something…women have bodies and men have words? Certainly both language and the body were weapons. But they were all wrestling with language in some way, trying to find the right word or just trying to get a word out or…in…in…in…