Stage Door Review
Saturday, August 10, 2019
by Howard Barker, directed by Tim Carroll
Shaw Festival, Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
August 10-October 12, 2019
Ball: “I wish I could be more offensive. I really do.”
"A good play puts the audience through a certain ordeal”, says Howard Barker, the author of the play Victory from 1983. Nearly three-hours of sitting through Victory certainly is an ordeal especially when Barker has made sure we are not interested in anything the characters say or do. “I don’t like sympathetic characters”, Barker has said, “Theatre should be a taxing experience”. Nevertheless, Tim Carroll, who directed the play in 2010 in Budapest in Hungarian, has decided to direct the play at the Shaw Festival in English to help educate the public about a playwright whose theories, Carroll says, “blew my mind wide open”.
Barker, the inventor of the so-called “Theatre of Catastrophe”, is one of the more peculiar British playwrights who came to prominence in the 1980s. He is a prolific playwright but his plays are seldom performed in Britain. Samuel Beckett did and Caryl Churchill continues to write plays that are more ground-breaking than Barker’s in both structure and subject matter, yet they are always in performance somewhere in Britain while Barker is not. Barker feels he is neglected because English culture is “utilitarian, entertainment-obsessed and awash with moral platitudes”, but that hardly accounts for the success of Beckett and Churchill.
The most obvious reason for his neglect is his own self-contradictory, self-congratulatory nature. Although his work is highly political, he claims he doesn’t like political theatre. He told The Guardian in 2012: “I don’t want to hear somebody’s arguments about politics, thank you. Nearly all theatre and all culture now is about projecting meaning. It’s very Enlightenment. Go to a newspaper if you want enlightenment: don’t go to the theatre”. In the same interview he says, “I write from ignorance. I don’t know what I want to say, and I don’t care if you listen or not”, but then he goes on to claim, “I'm interested in getting people to realize what I’m telling them”. So Barker does not like sympathetic characters, political messages or enlightenment, but still he wants people to go see what he has to say even though he doesn’t know what that is.
Canada has seen occasional stagings of plays by Barker such as The Power of the Dog (1981) in 2004, The Castle (1985) in 2015 and Lot and His God (2012) in 2015. But Victory is the highest profile production of a Barker play in Canada in the past 20 years. Barker himself in his note in the programme calls its “an acknowledged masterpiece”, although we have to wonder who, other than Barker acknowledges it as such.
The play certainly has great potential. It is set during the Restoration when Parliament, after the failure to govern by Oliver Cromwell’s son Richard, called on Charles II (1630-85) to return to rule the United Kingdom. After the English Civil War when the forces of Oliver Cromwell defeated the monarchists and established a republic, the Commonwealth of England, Charles II’s father Charles I (1600-48), became the first and only English monarch to be ordered executed by Parliament. In 1661, in the spirit of revenge against the republicans, the body of Oliver Cromwell was exhumed, hanged and beheaded.
The same fate as Cromwell’s befell John Bradshaw (1602-59), a judge who became President of the High Court of Justice and who signed the death warrant for Charles I. Though history recorded only that Bradshaw was posthumously beheaded, in Barker’s play, he has also been drawn and quartered as was done to people guilty of high treason and his remains displayed in various parts of the country.
Barker’s play focusses on Bradshaw’s wife Mary (Martha Burns), here renamed Susan, who decides to travel across the country to gather the bones of her husband in order to rebury them. She is accompanied by John Bradshaw’s secretary Scrope (Patrick Galligan), who is racked with guilt for having shown, under threat of injury from Charles II’s henchmen, the secret spot where John Bradshaw had been buried. The scenes of Mrs. Bradshaw’s quest alternate with scenes at the court of Charles II (Tom McCamus) and the pointless conversations of his debauched courtiers.
One of the main flaws of the play is that the world of Mrs. Bradshaw and that of Charles II do not meet until near the very end of the play. The only connection is the Cavalier Ball (Tom Rooney), who sets out to harass Bradshaw as the wife of an enemy. To his surprise, he finds he begins to lust after her and even to love her – feelings Bradshaw does not discourage much to the dismay of Scrope.
Bradshaw has no entry to the court until she becomes a servant of the Duchess of Devonshire (Sara Topham), one of Charles II’s many mistresses. Only then does Bradshaw have access to her husband’s head, which Charles keeps by him in a velvet bag, to finish her collection.
Barker is so keen on flouting all the conventions of drama that her throws out not merely sympathetic characters, enlightenment and political meaning, but character development and psychology, storytelling and audience engagement. We watch things happen to the characters but don’t really care about anything we see. Characters may be physically injured during the course of the action, but psychologically they are no different at the end of the play than they were at he beginning.
Barker deliberately frustrates any attempt for us to identify with Mrs. Bradshaw by providing her with no motive for her quest. She knows that a pile of bones is not the same as a living husband, one whom she does seem to have much liked anyway. When she explains the reason for her journey to her son (Michael Man), she says: I am done with accusing. I am done with shame, and conscience, duty, guilt and power, all of it!... no more standing up now, standing is over, standing up’s for men with sin and dignity”. Thus, Barker takes away any possible motivation for Bradshaw to go about her quest. She does it in the play because she must do something. Barker claims in his note that “Bradshaw conducts an experiment in psychology on herself”. Yet, since Bradshaw has said she is done with “duty, guilt and power, all of it!’why should she conduct any kind of experiment on herself?
If we can’t identify with the play’s main character we also can’t identify with any of the others. Charles II is shown to be a purposeless, randy fool. Scrope is such a strict adherent of John Bradshaw’s writing that his world view is severely blinkered. Cavalier Ball is very similar to Charles in his licentiousness but has the added flaw of being verbally and physically aggressive.
Giving us unchanging characters we care nothing about also means there is no dramatic tension and no plot to involve us. The nearly three hour running time of the play becomes quite a yawn. Mrs. Bradshaw sets out to gather up her husband’s bones and she does so. Charles II has no plan to do anything and does so.
Barker begins several potential stories involving his characters but fails to give us their conclusions. Cavalier Ball asks to have his private parts examined and the doctor tells him he has a very rare condition. We hear no more about it. The Duchess of Devonshire fears every pregnancy will kill her. She begins to have birth pangs and is carried off. We never learn what happens. Scrope is punished by mutilation but why he is we never know.
Carroll has assembled a starry cast, but it is depressing to see their talents wasted on a play that deliberately features only one-dimensional characters. Martha Burns lends Mrs. Bradshaw a vital intensity throughout the action and lights up the stage whenever she appears. Though Barker denies Bradshaw any motivation for her actions, Burns presents them as part of an existential mission in which Bradshaw tries to discover who she is through her journey of retrieving her husband’s bones. For that reason the bones she has collected mean nothing by the end of the play. Unfortunately for our flagging interest, the person she finds turns out to be no different than the animalistic person she said she was at the very beginning.
Patrick Galligan tries to invest his character of Scrope with pathos. The abject humiliation he expresses as Scrope is almost too painful to watch. Yet, Barker satirizes Scrope’s unfaltering adherence to Puritan teachings even as Mrs. Bradshaw casts them aside one by one. When Scrope (for unknown reasons) is punished by having his lips cut off and is presented (for unknown reasons) as a present to the Duchess of Devonshire, Galligan duly conveys Scrope’s suffering but we have to wonder whether Barker is playing some horrible joke on the character because he did not pay lip-service (horrid pun intended) to religious ideals.
Charles II would be a plum role if Barker had given it any depth. Tom McCamus plays it virtually the same way he played George III in The Madness of King George at the Shaw Festival in 2017, the prime difference being that his Charles is simply cruder than his George.
As Cavalier Ball, Tom Rooney is the only actor who brings any sense of violence and sexual menace to the stage. We are sure that his threats will lead to some vile action, but Barker neutralizes his villainy as much as he neutralizes Scrope’s devoutness. The comedy of his being examined for sexual disease demotes him as does his confession of sexual failure after his consensual rape of Mrs. Bradshaw.
Sara Topham lends the Duchess of Devonshire a fine self-ironic outlook that helps her stand out from the all the resolutely superficial characters of the court. Sanjay Talwar is very funny as the court poet Clegg, who is ready to extol in magniloquent verse the most trivial occurrences.
Most of the actors are required to play as many as four or more different roles. Deborah Hay excels everyone in making her various roles, both male and female, as distinct as possible. Gray Powell also plays multiple roles but largely fails to distinguish one from the other.
Given that Barker’s play intentionally has no profundity and that his characters are not complex, Carroll is right in his element. Yet, his staging does have its peculiarities. He has Mrs. Bradshaw attacked by one of the courtiers under one of the voms where only about half of the audience can see what is happening. Because of the frequent doubling, we often are not sure when an actor is or is not a character we’ve seen before. When Tom Rooney appears near the end dressed in a completely different way from the character Ball, we assume he is someone else, only to find out rather too late that he was actually playing Ball.
Barker has written an “Interlude” between Acts 1 and 2 that takes place in the vaults of the Bank of England. Here we discover as per Barker’s own conspiracy theory that it was the Bank (not founded until 1694) that was behind both the establishment of the Commonwealth in 1649 and the Restoration in 1660. (Barker admits in his note that he does no research.) While we may have thought that the obsessively vulgar Charles II was a terrible head of state, here we find out that it is the Bank that holds the true power and will not let even the King touch its gold.
For this scene Carroll forces the entire audience to trek downstairs to one of the rehearsal rooms, a process that takes about 20 minutes, to view this 15-minute-long scene. Though Carroll loves audience involvement, this physical change of scene is absolutely pointless and there are seats for only half the audience. This staging isolates the scene as if it were not part of the play, when it is, in fact, Barker’s central revelation about the source of power in Restoration England.
The Shaw Festival website includes a warning that “Victory is deliberately offensive... It is not for the squeamish and contains very strong language”. In reality, the pervasive coarseness of language is no different that an average Quentin Tarantino film and is far less gory. Victory has has none of the exhilaration that lies behind the vulgarity and violence in Tarantino. Barker does not believe theatre should enlighten and so we leave both unenlightened and bored. It is depressing to see so many fine actors waste their talents on so shallow a play.
It is also depressing that the Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival admires such a playwright. Tim Carroll praises Barker because “Barker leaves you to do the thinking”. But since Barker proclaims, “I write from ignorance. I don't know what I want to say, and I don't care if you listen or not”, one wonders whether Barker leaves us to do the thinking because he hasn’t done it himself.
Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.
Photos: (from top) Tom Rooney as Ball and Martha Burns as Bradshaw; Tom McCamus as Charles II; Martha Burns as Bradshaw; Sara Topham as the Duchess of Devonshire; Tom Rooney as Moncrieff, Gray Powell as Hambro, Patrick Galligan as Undy, Sanjay Talwar as Mobberley and Michael Man as Street in the Interlude. © 2019 David Cooper.
For tickets, visit www.shawfest.com.