Written for CultureWars.org.uk
“Try to understand why little, whilst it is too little, also is enough.” - Sleev, I Saw Myself
I Saw Myself is one of Howard Barker's most impressive plays to date. It is a dense, richly allusive piece which appears to reference enormous swathes of cultural history. It might be going a bit far to describe the play as Barker's Hedda... but the comparison – a self-willed, unfaithful wife driving herself headlong into self-destruction – holds no small amount of water. Here the heroine, Sleev (all the characters have faintly silly names, one just ignores it and proceeds), is a recently widowed medieval wife working on a tapestry to commemorate her husband's death in battle. However, Sleev - prodigiously promiscuous - decides to reinvent the tapestry as a testament to her own infidelities and the futility of her husband's death. As she works with her three ladies-in-waiting she carries on an affair with her daughter's husband, and with a man whom she has concealed in her wardrobe. All the while the war in which her husband died moves closer to her home, and her eyesight begins to fail as she struggles to complete her compulsive labours.
The piece evokes a huge number of plays, from Oedipus Rex and Women of Troy up to Ravenhill's The Odyssey and the work of Sarah Kane: the scene where an armed soldier bursts into a room where a man is attempting to rape a woman makes a fascinating parallel with Blasted, especially given Kane's known penchant for Barker. In places the language borders on Beckettian territory, with fractured admissions of adultery reminiscent of Play. Elsewhere the aphoristic wit and arch delivery – nearly bordering on Quentin Crisp's mannered disdain – bring to mind Coward and Wilde. Consider:
Sleev: I will find a husband... I do not want a fat man and he must know theology. Oh if he’s fat it’s not significant. Let him be fat. Do you know of such a man? A fat man might be better. Let him crush me. Ask in the vicinity or beyond
Sheeth: A fat theologian?
Sleev: Let him subdue me, if he can, by volume. Or by argument.
____________--__________[my punctuation, Barker provides none]
More than these, presumably unintentional, allusions, the play contains many hundreds of Barker hallmarks. The plot and themes are almost distilled Essence of Barker. The language, the constant references to arses and cunts, the trademark exchanges hinging on the word “obviously”, all almost self-parodic, are still integral to the verbal texture. And, as with some of Barker's greatest works, he has created another phenomenally powerful central female character - as with Bradshaw, Galactia and Gertrude before her - in I Saw Myself's Sleev.
Similarly characteristic is the obvious commitment and talent of the actors. Geraldine Alexander as Sleev offers precisely the right mixture of acidity and raw sexual allure, by turns coquettish or imperious, wracked with lust or dismissive, while Julia Tarnoky as the most idiosyncratic of Sleev's maids is an incredible study in detailed performance – flighty, adoring and almost camp, but undercut with an edge of sarcastic wit.
While Barker isn't keen to present works of 'social utility' or narratives from which the audience can derive easy messages, I Saw Myself does deal, if not in psychological acuity, then in characters and situations that appear to contain recognisable truths about the way in which the human soul operates at the very edges of desire and pain. The characters are compelled to commit their actions, they speak their thoughts candidly. It is not naturalism, but almost the sound of interlocking soliloquies, or perhaps spoken arias, given the heightened emotional states and the musical precision of the language and vocal performances. This is a fascinating and quite unique work from a writer who remains a continual challenge to received notions of what theatre should be.