[continued from above]
After the excitement of Slowly, Hurts Given and Received is slightly less of an adrenaline rush. But, given how good Slowly is, it also got itself a far more receptive hearing than it might have done if it had followed straight on from ...Dying Ward or Found in the Ground.
The basic structure of the thing gets right back to the classic template of late Barker work. That is: a person, usually of some power or distinction, remains in a place and is variously visited and prevailed upon by all manner of colourful intruders each of whom seems to advance this protagonist toward his or her seemingly inevitable denouement.
Here, the central tragic figure is Bach (or Bark’ as we might think, but Howard couldn’t possibly comment), a poet (and no discernable relation to Johann Sebastian, or any of his progeny), who is struggling to write a poem, but keeps being interrupted.
In many ways, this is a classic plot structure from Pat Hutchins’s Good Night, Owl! to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol via Simon Grey’s broadly loathsome Otherwise Engaged, the idea of a continually frustrated central character is a satisfying source of both comic and farcial potential.
And, in fairness, this isn’t Barker at his most serious. Sure the main thrust of the thing seems to rest on some pretty bald assertions about the importance of poetry and the terrible sacrifices that poets needs must make in order to crank out their life’s work – none of which, I have to say, is terribly convincing; but the business that surrounds this is largely pretty entertaining.
Bach’s visitors, you see, are a pretty wacky bunch. There’s his best friend Detriment – get used to the names – (Alan Cox) who enters in a ridiculous lime green shirt and trousers and then, having being rebuffed by Bach, re-enters to disembowel himself. There are a couple of mistresses – including the inevitable naked-save-for-high-heels-and-hat one, and then there’s a 12-year-old girl called Sadovee 1 (incredible performance by Issy Brazier-Jones), who essentially seduces Bach into murdering her, so that he is then in turn murdered by her (amusingly rough cockney) father, accompanied by her sister Sadovee 2 (Issy B-J again, again excellent). Alan Cox turns up again, this time as a poet called Stays (bearing a striking resemblance to T.S. Eliot) and is entrapped by Sadovee 2...
You get the picture. It’s all pretty eventful and rolls along at a fine pace.
As such it’s hugely diverting. A lot of the things that the characters say to each other are quite funny or witty, and Tom Riley has a hell of a way with acting, making the part of Bach seem like Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet crossed with David Tennant’s Hamlet, plus Tennant's Katurian from The Pillowman, all being played at once by Tom Hollander. As such, Riley does a phenomenal job of making the script sound like great, hugely, actable literature – on the other hand, he does so in a way that, thanks to either his performance or Barker’s take on the world, stops short of being an actual person. It’s technically brilliant, but seems to lack anything deeper.
And this is sort of the wider problem.
I guess we’re back to Barker’s assertion of him “fearlessly asserting a world devoid of morality” or somesuch. And, yes, it’d be an interesting idea if it came off, but it really doesn’t seem to. Not least because one man’s “amoral characters guided by the primacy of their desires” (I’m paraphrasing – those are scare marks, not quotes) is another man’s “bunch of people acting like petulant, worryingly over-sexualised children”.
Where in Slowly the whole seemed to function beautifully as a metaphor and specific comment about an actual world and actual things that actual people might conceivably actually think, the world of Hurts... seems to offer less internal logic than Alice’s Wonderland.
And again, we’re back to this wrestling with what the problem with this is. And kind of the problem is that the bits of interaction that don’t read as human – the bits that aren’t funny or don’t resonate – despite often sounding like they’re beautifully written don’t penetrate the consciousness in anything like the same way. You hear the words and acknowledge what they’re saying, but if they don’t amount to anything that does more than faintly echo a deliberately disingenuous take on personhood, what is the point in torturing yourself into entertaining them as ideas, as poetry or even as delicious nonsense?
I enjoyed the enjoyable bits of Hurts... It was possibly about twenty minutes longer than it needed to be. It contains some astonishingly good acting. And, acknowledging that Barker can’t abide functionality. Even acknowledging that. It's hard to see what it’s for. I think I get what its inventor thinks it's up to, but I’m not sure that’s what it actually does.
It a bit like being confronted by someone convinced of the fact they’ve invented a freezer compartment, but who keeps presenting you with trays of cold water instead of ice cubes. Disconcerting, certainly; but possibly not in the intended manner.