Tuesday 15 April 2008

I Saw Myself - Vanbrugh Theatre

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.


Anonymous said...

A pedant writes: how can it be both "almost distilled Essence of Barker", and thus characteristic to a near-ultimate degree, and at the same time "quite unique", and thus virtually without precedent or comparison? :-)

Andrew Haydon said...

How can anything be "quite unique"? Nasty Uncle Robert would spin in his grave (although isn't there a sort of sense where "quite" can be used as a synonym for "simply" or other such Wildean exclamations? I think the word salad of that final sentence was kind of making out that Barker's works are unique, and I didn't manage to put that across as well as I might.

Anonymous said...

Unique in the degree of its characteristicness?

Anonymous said...

Very interesting stuff; but can I also ask a question from somewhere along the pedantic / grumpy axis, please?

Why do you introduce punctuation into the passage you quote from the text?

Andrew Haydon said...

Fair question.

Well, actually, it's because I didn't take notes, and got Barker's agent to email me the script for quotes; but, had I had a pen and notepad to hand, that's what I would have written down. It's basically me trying to reflect what it was that I saw, rather than just reproducing the text as written, but then knowning that I'd done that, flagging it up so as to alert people to the fact that I had. Make sense?

Perhaps it was the wrong thing to do, but I was trying to give the impression of the piece as spoken, not as written, since I experienced it with quite clear punctuation :-)

Anonymous said...

I'm sure Sir Peter Hall will be reassured to know that, contrary to his gloomy pronouncements, British actors are still able to articulate so finely as to indicate inexistent punctuation...

...then again, I'm not sure how he'd feel about the way that such interpolations sit with the notion of servicing a playwright's intentions...

At any rate, I absolutely don't understand your explanation, not even slightly, and suspect therefore that you are most likely correct. Huzzah.

*gets off high horse; drinks milk*


Anonymous said...

the best bit is where she falls over and says "who put that darn cat there, timmy if i get my hands on that pesky rodent i'll ..."

the house was in stitches!