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The Big Interview: Howard Barker

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Whatsonstage.com reviewer Honour Bayes speaks to playwright Howard Barker at Riverside Studios, which is staging a mini-festival of his work.

Whilst the nation is in the thralls of political discussion one writer remains defiantly apolitical. The Howard Barker Festival, currently running at Riverside Studios, is about sacrifice; but whilst this concept will ring true with people in the middle of a recession, it is not an association that he would welcome. 

Howard Barker has no respect for the conventional belief that theatre is there to ‘say something’; “Do you ask that question of modern abstract art? No. So why is theatre such a slave to the need to educate?”

So what drives him as a writer? “I am driven by personal crises” he states after some thought. And has he solved any of them yet? “Clearly not!” 

The Wrestling School has returned after last year’s epic Found In The Ground with three new shows for this festival of work. Hurts Given and Received looks at how an artist uses others as a sacrifice to the God of ‘Great Art’. In Slowly (a piece written specifically for his long term assistant director Hanna Berrigan) four women question the presumption that they should sacrifice themselves to conform to expectation. The last piece, a rehearsed reading of Barker’s newest work, Wonder and Worship in the Dying Ward, explores a sacrifice demanded of someone for another’s fulfillment.

“In our world the individual is seen as sacrosanct…” Barker notes with a wry smile. It appears that this sacred association is the crisis currently driving him and one that he wishes to probe with bruising force.  What happens if this accepted arrogance is called into question?

That he is pulling apart an established societal status quo will come as no surprise to those whom know Barker’s rich back catalogue. Whilst staunchly defying the ever present demand for meaning in theatrical work, Barker’s work is infused with the desire to test the communal rules that we adhere to. By searching for a transcendental experience that reaches out to the most primal parts of us all, his work engages with the audience at a different kind of level, a level beneath the social and political. 

Whilst he denies any religious connotations there is definitely something messianistic about his terminology. “There are no sacred theatre spaces anymore anywhere in Britain” he says deploringly, and as we sit in the Riverside foyer with rock music adverts blaring out it's hard not to agree with him; “People always take drinks in with them now, everything is about entertainment”. 

Barker is certainly not an artist concerned about his audiences’ comfort.  His work consistently puts the viewer into places of heightened tension: forcing us into spaces where our instincts supersede civil discourse. This demands a level of commitment that can be quite hard to take, meaning that by his own admission his audience is a finite one. But whilst the rallying cry may be “We don’t want to go to the theatre to suffer!” his answer is always “Well some people do.”

In the show's write-up the mention of a violent encounter with a child sends a dark shadow over the preface of Hurts Given and Received (a typical 'statement' title). I wonder if there is anything that Barker feels is off limits. Upon hearing of the horrific presentation of the rape of a son by his father in Romeo Castellucci’s Purgatorio, Barker’s nose wrinkles with distaste “Well you have to know when it’s become grotesque”.  

It appears then that taste is of the utmost importance and this is intrinsic to his concept of dramatic beauty. Like an archaic finishing school master, Barker wishes his performers to be bastions of deportment. They are to be disciplined to every last musculature control whether it is physically or verbally. With such an iron grip over his work it is interesting that he has given two of these pieces to other people to direct. But he explains that having worked with Gerrard McArthur and Hanna Berrigan for so long he respects their instincts, trusting that they will mirror his own “The Wrestling School is a theatre school, it is an education really…”

Whilst he described Found In The Ground as a play of landscape rather than identity, this year he has returned to personal psychological studies.  But throughout, his thematic explorations of the ‘soul’, muscular struggle between performer and language and signature sense of dramatic beauty remain constant. “All these plays are cruel…I have no conscience, no responsibility other than to make good art…I always advise young writers to put their conscience at hazard…they need to push it and stretch it.”

No one would ever say that Barker is easy. But that his new season promises uncompromising beauty and terrifying cathartic tragedy, is in no doubt.

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