Thursday 6 May 2010

Slowly – Riverside Studios

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Four women dressed in severe, black, stylised renaissance dresses sit in four angular wooden chairs under pale lights. Straight-backed and rigid, they muse on the relative merits of having their bodies burned.

“We can be burned // We can be burned / shall I make the case for burning? //The case for burning turns on what occurs when women are not burned // I will describe the fate of dead but unburned women”

The main advantage being that, burned, their corpses cannot be raped and defiled by the barbarian hordes who, we learn, are approaching their – well, I assume – castle. But for their bodies to be burned, they must be dead. No one wants to be burned alive, after all and so the conversation turns to having their throats cut.

The rhythm of the piece, despite Barker’s characteristically rich language, is staccato. The women are taut, tense and on the verge of (non-naturalistic) hysteria.

What is brilliant about this text and, importantly, this staging of it, is how allusive it proves to be.

At the outset, you’re pretty much prepared to take the severe early-modern costumes on trust – believing the women to be perhaps the ladies in waiting to say Mary Queen of Scots, or, with the addition of “barbarians” perhaps some Mittel-European countesses.

But then there’s this brilliant moment where one of the women says, “We will undo our costumes at the throat / when we have exposed our throats we will call him [a servant] /.../ He will be uncomfortable / never having seen our throats / but we will reassure him...” What’s brilliant about it is the fact that in these particular costumes the throats of the four women are already exposed.

Suddenly, you get this sense that the costumes can be regarded as entirely symbolic. Instead of this coming across like a period drama, the viewer is freed to imagine these women anywhere in the world – primarily in a society that still demands that its women’s throats are covered. Suddenly we could be in Kabul or Tehran, the “barbarians” could easily be Western soldiers.

All at once there’s this telescoping effect where you re-hear the words that they’ve been saying and how much they map onto the way in which women are treated as tools of warfare and subjugation, from the sack of Troy, through the middle ages, through Henry V, through the rape of Eastern Europe by the Russians, to the Congo or Uganda today. Similarly, the language of contempt for the enemy becomes at once more and less loaded. It questions our, even uneasy acceptance of terms like “barbarian”. Much though Barker mightn’t like the thought, the play seems to be usefully *about* something.

Hannah Berrigan’s production is also outstanding. Alongside the austerely perfect crisp costumes and beautiful lighting, there is the sheer stillness of the performances. If anything, the two of three bits of actual movement and subtle shifts in lighting state feel like too much. I’d have happily watched the four women rooted, Beckett-style, to their chairs with all the discussed and implied movement simply stated rather than executed.

The performances are also quite something. Thanks, in part to the minimalism of everything else, the vocal work becomes particularly striking. Each of the four actresses is in possession of a quite remarkable voice, and here are given full licence to use them at full range. In lesser situations it might sound like a parody of the fruitiest RSC acting going, but here, coupled with the enjoyably amusing, ironic tone of their arch dialogue – this is one of those plays where Barker remembers he’s actually quite funny when he feels like it – it feels like watching virtuoso musicians using their instruments perfectly. It’s not aiming for naturalism in the slightest, instead there’s a kind of heightened epic grandeur to it all. Of the four Suzy Cooper, in particular is mesmerising with the almost overhead lights casting deep shadows under razor-sharp cheekbones.

And, yes, somehow it bears comparison to a kind of politicised, historical Beckett, conjuring the women of Come and Go, the adulterers of Play and the screaming mouth of Not I. It is also a welcome deviation from what has become the norm of Barker’s late work, instead echoing instead his great mid-period stuff like Scenes from an Execution and, more especially, The Europeans.

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