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Review: In the Depths of Dead Love (Print Room)

Howard Barker's latest play opens at the west London theatre following controversy over casting

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
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The action outside the Print Room proves considerably more lively and vital than what's on stage: on press night, a substantial protest was held against the casting of white actors in Chinese roles in Howard Barker's play. The issue of ‘yellowface' was raised when the casting was announced, prompting the Print Room to release an astonishingly tangled and tone-deaf statement.

It's worth reading in full, just to see how far your eyebrows can rise, but they manage to balls it up twice. First by suggesting that the ancient Chinese setting and names were actually used to suggest "the folkloric idea of the universal" – interpreted by many as a patronising act of erasure – and then by suggesting that it was in fact a "very ‘English' play and has been cast accordingly." Because there are no East Asians in England, obviously. Embarrassing.

In fact, In the Depths of Dead Love seems to be neither very Chinese nor very English. A could-be-anywhere, abstract-fable really is the best description – if the characters didn't have very distinctively Chinese names, I doubt the casting issue would have arisen. But they do, so it did, and it's absolutely right that it did. Let's hope this furore has raised consciousness as much as it's raised hackles.

Moving on to the play itself. An exiled poet, Chin, has become the Well Master, charging the suicidal to throw themselves down a bottomless well. But one customer – Lady Hasi - can never quite bring herself to jump. Stuck in a sexless marriage, her husband Lord Gang also visits and suggests that Chin might help her out with a little shove…

For a while, Barker finds real humour in this morbid but neat set-up: the officious, business-like discussion that surrounds the running of the well has a black satire to it. Those that don't succeed in doing the deed must pay on leaving too: a tax on cowardice, or a discount for the truly despairing? The poet – a snarky, world-weary figure – also fixates absurdly on language as much as action: why is "shove" so much worse than "push"? Could he do it if it was to "tip" rather than to "barge"?

But the play does drag on – especially as Barker, characteristically, drags in sex and love and yokes them to the death impulse. It goes from being a wryly observed surreal situation to a heightened, overblown scenario of erotic desperation, delivered in full poetic throttle. And yet this often feels pretentious rather than vivid; dithering over suicide is obviously a pretty classic basis for a play, but it's not a good sign when you start hoping the character would just get on with it.

Stella Gonet is good as Mrs Hasi, the rapid, fluting fluidity of her voice suiting the character and the cadences of Barker's writing. James Clyde captures Chin's blustery, belligerent humour, but rarely manages to make the high-falutin' speeches soar instead of grate.

While Justin Nardella's design is effective – a well seems to glow, and its tarnished-mirror lid rises to become a huge moon – director Gerrard McArthur's staging is, at one key moment, bewilderingly bad. When some people fall down the well, they simply stand reflected in the big mirror: fine. An abstract solution. But when poor Gonet is meant to be falling, she physically climbs into the well – not only stylistically inconsistent but also painfully clunky. If they really couldn't find a better way of staging it, a blackout would have at least spared us the sight of an actor having to clamber into a hole. Or maybe it's apt: after all, the entire production seems to have got itself stuck in one.

In the Depths of Dead Love is at the Print Room until 11 February.

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