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Hurts Given & Received

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Can great art be created only by the dangerously self-obsessed? Does a masterpiece need cruelty and manipulation? In Hurts Given and Received, Howard Barker asks many powerful questions and, as with all great tragedy, provides few answers. The music greeting the audience on arrival is discordant, scratchy and annoying, putting the audience on edge and hinting at the malevolence to come.

Bach, convinced he is writing the greatest poem of all time, uses, abuses and discards all those who come into contact with him - his mother, friends, servant, and most shockingly, a child. Nothing matters to Bach except ‘The Poem’. The other characters in his life sacrifice themselves to his abuse because they seem to accept that ‘The Poem’ is the be all and end all and they, as individuals, might be the poet's catalyst to greatness.

Brilliantly directed by Gerrard McArthur for The Wrestling School, the "Hurts Received" part of the play sees Bach on the sharp end of revenge for a terrible crime. Paralysed and mute, he channels his poetry through a young girl who pours out page after page of "great poetry" to provide the increasingly dependent community with their poetic drug of choice. Only in his stillness, when he no longer has the ability to wound, does his poetry flow.

Tom Riley's dynamic Bach in the first part of the play is in constant movement, whether it is climbing to the hugely oversized chair and desk where he writes, pacing along the decking that defines the acting area, or running his hands frenetically through his hair. This kinetic performance becomes even more startling when in the latter part of the play Bach is paralysed, the stillness even more effective than his earlier frantic searching for words.

Such a bravura performance could have overshadowed the rest of the cast, but Issy Brazier-James makes compelling characters of Sadovee and her sister, with the ensemble providing fine support.

At 110 minutes, the play is overly long and the pace could be upped in a couple of scenes. Some judicious editing might also be useful in reducing the feeling of being bludgeoned repeatedly with the play's themes. That said however, this is a significant and fascinating exploration of the place of art in society.

- Carole Gordon


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