The prolific Howard Barker has been challenging audiences with his self-styled ‘Theatre of Catastrophe’ for over 30 years. More appreciated on the Continent than in the UK (there’s currently a Barker festival taking place at the Théâtre de l’Odéon in Paris), his highly wrought and murkily ambivalent dissections of power, violence and sexuality can be tough going but linger long in the mind. Having premiered his most recent play The Dying of Today last year, the Arcola now co-produces with Iceni a revival of one of Barker’s best and most accessible plays, the ironically titled Victory.
First staged in 1983, Barker (as so often) uses a historical period to comment on contemporary society, in this case suggesting the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 parallels Thatcherite Britain in its moral corruption and disregard for human dignity.
The macabre story follows the perilous journey taken by Bradshaw, the widow of the Puritan who sentenced Charles I to death, to recover his body parts which have been dug up and put on display at Tyburn as a public warning by the new Royalist regime. Accompanied by her husband’s loyal but cowardly assistant Scrope, she steals money from fellow Puritans and is raped by Ball, a Cavalier who pursues her with obsessive lust, before becoming the confidante of Devonshire, the mistress of King Charles II, close to the dark centre of power.
While the modern political parallels don’t really convince, Barker’s scathing satire on the self-serving exploitation of the governing classes hits home. No one comes out well in this divided society where decadence or fear corrode integrity and fellow-feeling. The heightened language and grotesque actions (such as throwing skittles at a skull) recall Jacobean tragedy in its jaundiced perspective on human nature, but Amelia Nicholson’s compelling production also highlights plenty of black humour and ultimately reveals unexpected pathos.
The excellent cast, playing multiple roles, clearly relish Barker’s brutally poetic (and frequently filthy) dialogue. Geraldine James gives an outstanding performance as Bradshaw, a steely woman capable of great compassion, who gains self-knowledge through suffering but whose motives remain ambiguous. As the disillusioned Ball, Matthew Kelly is equally impressive in veering between comic attempts at love poetry and sudden violent outbursts.
Karl Theobald’s Scrope is an amusing yet poignant study of willing spirit and weak flesh, while Evie Dawnay gives Devonshire a touch of vulnerability beneath her aristocratic hauteur, and as the seemingly unprincipled but somehow pathetic Charles, Nicholas Rowe shows the dehumanising effects of kingship.
Overall, though, the play demonstrates with persuasive intellectual passion that whoever emerges victorious from civil war, it is always the ordinary people who lose out.