To Hammersmith for a whole day of Howard Barker plays – one rehearsed reading and two full productions.
It’s difficult to know the best way to approach reporting these three performances. Single reviews of each, if properly discrete entities, won’t allow for the conversation that they seem to set up around the work, whereas a lengthy essay about the whole day, recent thoughts on Barker and the whole Wrestling School aesthetic... Well, it’d be unwieldy and would probably end up obscuring the plays themselves.
So, what I’ve done is write everything in one document and then tried to separate them out as distinct reviews, albeit ones which, along with this header, can be read as a single continuous argument.
This whole Barker thing starts last October, where, during the same week that I saw Shunt’s Money and Tim Crouch’s The Author, I was also sent to review the latest Howard Barker play, Found in the Ground, for Time Out. Up to that point, I’d pretty much considered myself at the very least a wry admirer of Barker’s work. I’d read pretty much all of it (well, from Stripwell and Claw onwards – which omits his 1969/70 debuts, early Bush plays and a few radio dramas). Indeed, I’ve read far more of Barker’s work than his increasingly selective programme bibliographies admit he’s written and I’d seen pretty much everything the Wrestling School had made since the 1999 production Scenes from an Execution onwards. After Found in the Ground, I was a bit worried.
As the review, and a subsequent Guardian blog piece which I wrote on the subject, makes clear, I was pretty worried by being worried. That Guardian piece now reads to me like a rather constructive climbdown from an initial position of not inconsiderable irritation. Lots about Found in the Ground had got on my wick in a very under-the-skin kind of way.
The problem was, as well as not liking Found in the Ground, I found it rather difficult to see how it significantly differed from the other works, which I’d previously enjoyed. What hadn’t worked in FitG wasn’t so far removed from the aesthetic of previous productions and yet it had really grated. So, not only did I end up not especially liking one particular play, I wound up questioning what I’d liked about the others, and rather worrying about either something like “the scales falling from my eyes”, or else Barker finally getting closer to realising a lot of the artistic ambitions which he sets out in Arguments for a Theatre and me not liking it one bit.
Whatever it was, it felt like a slightly traumatic parting of the ways. (And, yes, I’m aware of how egocentric all this angst sounds, but...)
Which brought me nervously to Hammersmith, rather hoping that I wasn't going to hate the next eight or so hours. Not least because eight hours is a rather long time to spend not enjoying oneself voluntarily.