Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 1 December 2015

Howard Barker Double Bill

Arcola Theatre ⋄ 25th November - 19th December 2015

The great tormentor.

Sally Hales
Judith: A Parting From The Body

Judith: A Parting From The Body

Howard Barker wants to torment you. In the first part of this Barker double-bill, director Robyn Winfield-Smith places the audience in a pitch-black room and gives them headsets.  The Twelfth Battle of Izonzo is an immersive audio experience in which you listen to the intimate power-plays between Tenna, a blind 17-year-old girl, and Izonzo, the 100-year-old man, whose sight has also gone, she is about to marry.  As they navigate the sexual politics of their relationship, their words fill your head.

Is this a misogynist piece? Is it feminist? Whenever meaning threatens to intrude, Barker subverts it. You’re caught in his Theatre of Catastrophe trap: “It’s time we started taking our audiences more seriously, and stop telling them stories they can understand,” he says.

The audio experience gives the performance a unique intimacy. You can almost feel the actors’ movements, Izono’s breath on your neck. There is something repulsive about it: you’re coming between them. It’s a discomfiting, but brilliant, way to embody Barker’s desire to undermine collective experience of theatre; to subvert what he sees as the brainwashing of false identity found in collective understanding and universal truths.
In the dark, it’s impossible to share the experience or validate your response. You can’t glance at the person next to see if they’re smiling or if they’ve nodded off. You’re at the centre of the drama and its subject is your own confusion. It feels a bit like sitting an exam where all the possible answers are wrong. When the lights go up, one audience member loudly declares the whole thing tedious, while others look confused, some enraptured.

The promise of live action after the interval is a relief though. For Judith: Parting from the Body, the stage is adorned with a trestle bed: a typical dramatic interpretation of war camp. Yes, we’re on more familiar ground, but there are still plenty of bumps in the road.

The play is reinterpretation of the legend of Judith, which comes from the deuterocanonical Book of Judith. She was a beautiful Hebrew widow who entered Assyrian general Holofernes’ camp, got him drunk and seduced him so she could chop off his head, thereby saving her people. It is the subject of much iconographic art celebrating or warning of the power of women. But Barker throws out many of the fundamentals. Here, Holofernes, refuses sex and drink, only wanting to debate death and cruelty, while Judith is so overcome by desire that she attempts to commit necrophilia. Barker isn’t going to let us get away with generalisations about the sexuality of men and women.
Catherine Cusack plays Judith’s confused motivation beautifully. Her original purpose collapses under desire for Holofernes after death, before she suddenly transforms – with an hilarious, expletive-ridden verbal act of self-flagellation – into a would-be dictator of her own people. It’s a psychological switchback which defies explanation.

The same is true of Liam Smith’s Holofernes: he is a cold, calculating killer who disassembles for no apparent reason before almost submitting willingly to death. Kristin Hutchinson’s Servant also muddles the master-servant boundaries: at times lecturing Holofernes, berating her mistress, before finally submitting timidly to her tyranny. These ideological  volte-faces are so absurd, they’re funny. Holofernes’s cruelty seems to jump to Judith the moment she kills him. Sex and death are again a battleground where right and wrong don’t exist, where ideology and identity are fluid.

As a study of the intoxicating nature of power, Judith: A Parting from the Body brings to mind Foucault’s assertion that: “fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.”

Barker torments his characters, contorting them into grotesque shapes to show us the apparatus of meaning, before smashing it to bits before our eyes to reveal the fascistic power of ideology and identity. As an exercise in fulfilling The Barker Project, this double bill is a huge success but it is also a brain-aching evening at the theatre: at times tedious and infuriating, but also fascinating and funny.


Sally Hales is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Howard Barker Double Bill Show Info

Directed by Robyn Winfield-Smith

Written by Howard Barker




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