A consummate performer, Barlow clearly laps up the opportunity to be in the spotlight of the Royal Festival Hall in front of a packed auditorium. His narrative is not so much a sequence of connected stories but, with the use of a sublime score from double bassist Sebastiano Dessanay and filmic elements from Hugo Glendinning, there is a choreographed beat to the piece using elements of sound and film to echo themes around stillness, peace, a love of life and an acceptance of the inevitability of death.
Andrew Ellis’s lighting is simple and atmospheric, using shadows and silhouettes – playing with light to complement the words, film, music and the BSL interpreter who becomes a fourth, subtle presence on stage. The huge expanse of the RFH stage is transformed with economic simplicity to give the feeling that you are watching TV in your own living room.
There is a sparseness and an understanding of the concept of ‘less is more’ that runs through Him, making it a beautifully crafted piece of storytelling. My sense was of the real privilege the piece affords to gaining an intimate understanding of a life lived from an aged, gifted performer. Our society affords scant respect to old age and although as human beings we have a natural urge to connect with elders, there has been a cauterisation of the wounds created by the freneticism and vapid, consumerist and mercurial quality of our digital age.
Him draws us in gently, providing a warm intimacy through the joys and challenges of Tim’s extraordinary – yet also ordinary – life. The filmic elements enlarge the landscape of the actor’s features for the audience to fall into, whilst considering the enormity of those little moments that we only realise with hindsight have changed us forever. The scale of Barlow’s face on screen in juxtaposition with the smallness of his physical presence creates a dramatic contrast that allows the audience to breathe and absorb what we are witnessing.
Tim shares stories of his life in the army and subsequently as an actor, famously following the advice of Trevor Nunn and Sir Laurence Olivier, which took him to treading the boards with Complicite. Yet some of the most compelling moments in this moving piece are the stories of train sets, ballrooms, his pet cat and a film of him falling asleep.
Imbued with a poetry through the combination of storytelling, film, music and lighting – all deftly managed through Sheila Hill’s immaculate direction – Him faces us with a basic message of the value of the small moments of our lives, coupled with a sense of the freedom gained through embracing our mortality.
There is nothing highbrow or complex about Him. In fact (as we learnt in the after show Q&A) it was Tim’s butcher who gave him the title for Him during a chat whilst carving the weekly ration of meat. It is in the down-to-earthiness and simplicity that the craft of Hill’s direction is felt.
And in terms of impairment, Tim’s story is very much the tale of the everyday. Learning to adapt to the circumstances created by hearing loss and subsequent adjustment to some hearing gain with the introduction of a cochlear implant. It is obvious when spelled out, but as a deaf person the only way Tim could learn his lines for the major productions he’s acted in is by learning all the lines of every part.
Him offers a rare opportunity to witness a very special kind of theatre, the sort that will continue to resonate in your subconscious for many years. A gift from an immensely talented performer and group of artists dedicated to their work.
This piece was produced in partnership with Disability Arts Online, a web-based journal for critique, discussion and promotion of work by disabled artists. Colin Hambrook is Disability Arts Online’s founder and Editor.