Judith has travelled some distance. As a biblical text in and out of canonical favour, through the Beowulf manuscript, Dante, and Chaucer; Appearing in the sculpture of Donatello, the painting of Caravaggio, Titian and Klimt; set to music by Mozart, Vivaldi and Tallis. The woman who dared to decapitate a General has drawn focus through the ages as a symbol of courageous womanhood, fallen womanhood, piety, sin, nationalist energy and personal corruption. Howard Barker’s short, erudite, and raw three-hander seeks to give Judith her own life, her own tragedy, and her own modern and impossible love.
As General Holofernes, Liam Smith delivers a performance high on superciliousness and certainty. Barker’s prose images an unhappy philosopher prince, brutalised by his eminent masculinity, dehumanised by his achievements, in love with his rationality, struck cold by his own unloveableness. And while Smith’s detachment services the character’s sense of exhaustion, there is a touch too much sustain to the notes of self-possession, the intelligence repeats like a cowbell, against the grain of the pealing script. When we need the capaciousness of a Hamlet, and the clarity of a Marcus Aurelieus we get something closer to a pampered celebrity and surly adolescent. His cracked utterance of the word “thing” as he looks down at his own body overcome by fear of mortal stuff is certainly a highlight, but a chink in an armour which is otherwise too solidly worn.
Judith, we are told, also talks of death, which sets the scene for a meeting of the considerable minds and wills of her and Holofernes. Caroline Cusack, her long neck thrusting and parrying, delivers a punchy performance in an extreme and demanding role. And while the balance of feminine wiles and feisty confrontation is never quite struck, she hits her stride towards the curtain as Judith becomes despotic with power. Standing over her accomplice (played by Emmeline Prior who manoeuvres The Servant’s rapid changes cannily) radiating a Sadean terribleness, a malevolent Godliness, she delivers an unforgettable monologue, asserting the sterility of just punishment, the sheer ecstasy in beholding the look of incomprehension on the face of the punished innocent. Realising a twisted desire, and drawn up to full height, Cusack is frightening.
In Caravaggio’s painting Judith looks as though she doesn’t want to be there. She acts at arm’s length, an unwilling participant in her own fall, curious, backed by the ugly set face of her servant. Titian’s protagonist radiates the calm of the Madonna, delivering an eerie yield, the severed dome swaddled like a child. Both betray a distinct unease about the femininity that would carry away the man’s head; one a corrupt virginity, the other a twist on saintly motherhood. Tonight Barker and Cusack deliver a Judith closer to Botticelli’s warrior queen. Proud, terrible, desirous. Sacrificing her chance at love, it’s Judith’s fate to become the equal of Man; the equal of God.
It’s a dense, prismatic text which paints romantic love with recognisably modern sentiments, all the while spinning it away into a timeless feeling of tragedy. At the same time its raw muscularity charges the intricacies of existential reflection with the same potency as the screams of “Israel”, which bring their own contemporary charge. It’s testament to Robyn Winfield-Smith’s direction and the women’s flexibility that they can manage to hold the thing in perspective. Very clever and very powerful; and more power to the clever Cock for staging it.