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Brief Encounter With ... Howard Barker

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Found in the Ground, the latest work from renowned Theatre of Catastrophe dramatist and director Howard Barker, opened last week at the Riverside Studios. This blackest of black comedies is performed by a cast of 13 and presented by Barker's own company, The Wrestling School, which specialises in exploring the relationship between language and communication, performer and audience.

Since his first play premiered Cheek at the Royal Court Upstairs in 1970, Barker has gone on to become one of the most influential figures in European experimental theatre. His many plays include 13 Objects, Crimes in Hot Countries, Dead Hands, The Europeans, A Hard Heart, Fair Slaughter, Gertrude, Scenes from an Execution, Victory and That Good Between Us. He has also written opera libretti, poetry and a number of important critical and theoretical works.

On 21 October 2009, The Wrestling School celebrates its 21st birthday with 21 for 21, staging more than 60 readings and performances of Barker's plays in 21 countries around the world.

Firstly, could you tell us about Found in the Ground?
We’ve had to wait a while to be able to do this play as its scale was beyond our resources until now. It is a play of images and echoes from the Hitler period to the more recent past. At the centre of it is an ex-Nuremberg judge whose contempt for his own culture compels him to destroy his priceless library. His librarian and his daughter struggle to make sense of these actions, moving from love to hatred and back again.

It's billed as being "unique" amongst your recent work. In what way?
It is entirely impressionistic, with a cascading number of scenes, all related but not always consecutive. So it operates differently from all other plays of mine, by breaking down the narrative that has always been at the centre of theatre in my and nearly all dramatic text.

Would you still describe it as Theatre of Catastrophe?
No, it’s not a Theatre of Catastrophe play. It is not a tragedy. The characters don’t pass through the ordeal of their experiences, they react spontaneously, or carve out places for themselves in which to live. I would call this a play of landscape rather than identity.

Is it a particular challenge dramatising Hitler, a figure with so many associations?
Of course it is impossible to put Hitler on stage in any historical sense. But I didn’t intend to do that. I take a fragment of him, entirely imaginary. He is a visitor to the place that he has (and the 20th-century has) created.

You're celebrating 21 years of The Wrestling School this month. How has the company changed over the years?
Its methods have developed, its aesthetic is refined, and I think its identity is now so distinctive I never think of it being in the theatre at all. It’s somewhere else.

Has it become what you envisaged back in 1988?
No, in 1988 we were simply satisfied to be mounting a large play at all. Now it stands for something, an aesthetic which is controversial, of course, but international in reputation. I couldn’t have foreseen that. I couldn’t have foreseen how many enemies we would make, nor how many friends.

What do you identify as being yours and the company's primary creative challenges going forward?
The creative challenges are to do with recovering the artform. Always of putting imagination back into theatre, and voice, and the body, but above all of doing this in a way which creates the tension I think necessary in my theatre - if it's theatre at all. The stress of the creative moment needs to be communicated.

- Howard Barker was speaking to Theo Bosanquet and Jo Caird

Found in the Ground opened on 1 October 2009 (preview 30 September) at Riverside Studios, where it continues until 11 October.


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