Howard Barker double bill (Arcola)

Robyn Winfield-Smith directs ”The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo” and ”Judith: a Parting from her Body”

© Nick Rutter

Looking for some family entertainment this festive season? This Howard Barker double bill definitely isn’t it – especially if you have teenage girls or ageing grandfathers coming to stay.

Getting its London premier under Robyn Winfield-Smith‘s direction is The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo: the battle being one of wills between Isonzo, a 100-year-old man, and his bride-to-be, the 17-year-old Tenna. Both are blind, they claim. The play explores the mental push-and-pull of their un-seeing attraction, Isonzo using sexual anticipation like a weapon. He’s driven wild all eleven previous conquests with his untouching titillation.

If that sounds creepy – well, it is. Powerfully so. And it’s only made creepier by the clever staging: almost entirely in the total darkness, their voices, shuffling footsteps and howling wind are played in 3D surround sound to us via headphones. When Isonzo (Nicolas Le Provost) approaches a naked Tenna (Emily Loomes), his voice seemed to burrow right into my left ear. I shrank in my seat.

But I don’t think Tenna is really a victim. We see her, lit, at the very start and very end, giving her greater bodily agency; and she is the physical half of the duo, the one with fleshy appetites. It’s her that desires and demands him – their strange union is not abuse, although he later does torment her.

The whole thing is extremely Beckettian: heightened, illogical, with babbling spurts of language, loaded pauses, absurdist riffs (Isonzo is very concerned her underwear might be green; the mere thought of the colour makes him gag). Tenna’s cut-glass enunciation, her rapid monologues punctuated by shrieks of laughter, recall Not I. Only here, for the most part we see nothing at all – not even a mouth.

The darkness and intimacy of their ear-whispering is extraordinarily effective, rendering the hour utterly absorbing and unnerving. But I wondered afterwards if it wasn’t rather manipulative – a mind game played on us. Blinded by darkness, you’re both placed in their experience, and forced to provide mental images; it’s like a grubbily confusing dream you want to shower off. And, like a dream, on the telling of it, it loses its essential quality – the synopsis sounds merely tawdry. Sometimes, it’s best to admit you’re still working a play out: I think I liked the production, but am not sure about the play.

Which was reversed for the second half. Judith: a Parting from her Body is Barker’s 1992 version of the Biblical myth, about a Jew who seduces then decapitates army general Holofernes, to save Israel. His version has much philosophical discourse on death, and another battle of the sexes, as Judith and Holofernes match each other in smarts, subtly and duplicitousness. Characters ricochet between brutality and love, deep remorse and monstrous ego, all enlivened by… a spot of necromantic lust!

It’s only 50 minutes long, but it’s an epic journey – and while there’s much to admire here, Winfield-Smith doesn’t quite pull it off. Liam Smith, however, is brilliant as Holofernes: definitely a psychopath, louche and cool. Confident, even amusing, in his musing on mortality, more like a TED speaker than an army general, until you realise what he’s saying totally lacks humanity. Physically puffed up yet contained, like a tough little terrier, he conveys a sense of power that isn’t just brute force – it’s all strategy, baby. What to make, therefore, of his apparent acceptance of his grizzly fate? No idea, sorry.

Kristin Hutchinson is good as the hapless servant who turns out to have more comprehensive analysis of the situation than anyone else on stage. But Catherine Cusack fails to quite rise to the challenge – and god, it is a challenge – of Judith: she’s brittle and haughty, yes, and manages the flip-switch changes of tone confidently, but the magnetism and seduction, the sense of womanly, weighty power she surely needs just isn’t there. She’s not helped by a cumbersome, creased satin skirt – in a shade of lime-green that would revolt more than Isonzo.

There’s a scarily convincing final speech, where her brutal act is seen to have brutalised her, and she lusts to kill someone truly innocent, who can’t comprehend the irrationality of their fate (although death, Holofernes explained at the start, is always terribly irrational in the way it just… takes us). But too often, Cusack stalls just on the edge of greatness, not quite Judith enough.

The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo and Judith: a Parting from her Body run at the Arcola until 19 December 2015.