Deep inhalations, followed by death rattles that heave through their shoulders, the drowned crew of a U-boat galumph towards a table, then take their seats around it; atop, a woman vomits into a bucket while another staggers drunkenly around the stage, laughing; circling this action is a man on a bicycle. Another man – possibly Charles V – climbs onto the table, grabs the bucket and feeds the contents to the dead sailors, while the cyclist chokes the laughing woman with his bike lock. All the while, fragments of the word ‘inequality’ pulse between the players, uttered by different characters in alternating pitches, rising and falling, with a rhythmic insistence that is more akin to music than language.
This was my first piece at Ignite: a 15-minute extract from Howard Barker’s latest piece, Charles V, and it was an intense introduction to his work, offering my comfort zone no quarter. A play constructed around that one word, ‘inequality’, it challenges any notion of narrative, intent instead on exploring the word’s composite sounds, forcing me to focus on each interaction and to search for meaning in minute gesture and single-syllable utterances. Whereas Barker’s last piece, Blok/Eko – also performed here, at the Northcott Theatre on the University of Exeter campus, by visiting members of The Wrestling School – created a ‘wash’ of language in its interrogation of the notion of ‘plethora’, Charles V is inspired by ‘insufficiency’, and how, presumably, actors, the director and the audience cope with that state.
In the discussion that followed, Barker reiterated what he’d said in his introduction to this work in progress: “Don’t look for meaning in my work; it doesn’t mean anything.” In his desire to create a purely emotional experience, he has stripped this piece back to the bones (although its stage directions are, apparently, vast and very particular). “I want to seduce audiences out of the state of searching for meaning,” he added, to draw them away from a reliance on narrative. In my current, unseduced, state, I’ll admit I was madly attempting to interpret the action, to fathom who was experiencing inequality at any particular point, and at the hands of whom, and what could subsequently be inferred about inequality from each interaction or exchange of syllables… It seems clear that Barker would be happy for us just to sit inside the experience, however uncomfortable that might be, and leave it at that. It is not the artist’s job to instruct or educate the audience in how to be civil, he says, but merely to make art, and we, as the audience, can only really have faith in their ability to make the work – nothing else.
As I walked back into the city centre to catch more performances (some venues had three or four shows scheduled each day), I pondered Barker’s assertion that theatre is too huge, too vast with possibilities, to waste its power on the mere delivery of narrative. What a way to start to a theatre festival!
And so it was fitting that the work I saw next, Contains Spoilers by Exeter-based dance company TrashDollys, presented a conundrum, narratively speaking. A compelling fusion of dance and film, with a brooding, noir-tinged aesthetic, Contains Spoilers is the twisted tale of a beautiful widow (Holly Durant), an obsessive photographer (Sam Amos – surely channelling Chet Baker) and the mystery of their entanglement. The use of filmed sections to convey part of the narrative is beautifully cinematic, and includes a lovely section in which Amos stares, entranced, at a Polaroid-style close-up of Durant, she moving almost imperceptibly as if to avoid his eye – an evocative representation of the ‘male gaze’. As they dig through layers of secrets, the characters move through the discordance of misunderstandings to moments of unity, their bodies flowing around each other to represent passion and ecstasy, shame and pain.
What I saw as the 1950s feel of the piece – a great showcase for the company’s inventive theatricality and physical dexterity – enhanced my interpretation, with its associations of repression and social conformity, so it is jarring when, in the denouement, a booming voiceover imposes a distinct narrative framework, including a current timeframe, on everything that’s gone before. There’s a shocking kiss-off so perhaps the company feared we wouldn’t ‘get it’ (Barker would say, “So what?”), but as the darkness they construct mounts effectively without it, the voiceover seems an inelegant way to close what is an otherwise excellently well-constructed piece. You can catch it at the Edinburgh Fringe in August.
Also at the Cygnet New Theatre, two plays, a timely revival of Mike Bartlett’s Contractions (originally performed at the Royal Court in 2008) and the latest from Devon writer Jo-Jo Spinks, were concerned with nightmare visions of the workplace, and the extent to which the current economic climate has corrupted language and relationships, degrading human dignity in the process.
In a lean production by BareBulb Theatre, Contractions presents a dystopian world where the employer controls the lives of employees to a sinister extent – which, alarmingly, doesn’t seem to be so very absurd these days. The Manager (played with glacial intensity by Julie Wood) believes that Emma’s relationship with colleague Darren is in contravention of her contract; through 14 short scenes, she probes deeper into their romance, with stomach-churning consequences; in Bartlett’s office, the fear of losing a job makes the employee complicit in reinforcing the inhuman cycle created by the market. As the Manager’s demands and machinations become increasingly despotic, Sylvia Hunt’s Emma is ground down to the point where she digs up her dead baby, to prove that the infant is no longer a threat to the company’s sales figures; in a moment of merciless cruelty, the Manager then uses the shoebox/coffin as a footrest.
In Severance, Spinks employs monologues and dramatic episodes to reveal individuals’ experiences of the cuts, while dancers (Durant and Amos, from TrashDollys, used to great effect) embody the subtext, their moves conveying the contortions required of our value systems in order to negotiate such a landscape. One of the strongest sections sees Frank (Gordon Frow) contemplating how capitalism’s promotion of competitiveness between colleagues results in ruthless behaviour. The bleakest section, the last, sees Dean (Fin Irwin) visit his floundering younger self (Amos) to encourage him to pull himself out of poverty and despair, to get work, any work, because it’s the act of ‘being paid’ that is key to self-esteem, so asserting the awful truth that market forces require the most vulnerable to be the most resourceful in order to survive. With potent themes and inventive staging, it’s a sad, funny (honestly!) and thought-provoking piece for our times.