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Howard Barker at the Segal Center (The Wrestling School, UK)

Howard Barker’s visit to the Segal Center provided a wonderful opportunity to learn about the scope of his work and his achievements as a playwright, director and theorist.  By the end of this event, I could certainly say that Barker’s best days are certainly not behind him.  I hope that his visit inspires actors, directors, producers and audiences to seek out his work.

The afternoon began with a screening of a documentary that introduced us to some of Barker’s earlier plays, pre-Wrestling School.  A second screening introduced us to some of Barker’s more recent projects, which he not only wrote, but directed.  One could not ignore Barker’s use of language in the scenes we saw, or the demands that his plays place on actors.  I was also pleased to discover how important the visual elements can be in his productions.  The panel discussion that followed these screenings focused on Howard Barker in the United States.

Early in the evening we were treated to readings of scenes from three recent Barker scripts.  Lot and his God was surprisingly funny. The characters included an angel, the Biblical figure Lot, his wife, and a waiter.  The setting was a café in which the angel was struggling—rather unsuccessfully—to convince Lot and his wife to leave Sodom before it is destroy.  These Sad Places, Why Must You Enter Them? was set in a barber shop, where a man holds the barber hostage.  Gertrude—The Cry uses the back-story of Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a starting point.  It opens with a regicide. King Hamlet is being poisoned in the garden by Claudius (his brother) and Gertrude (the queen), who then proceed to have sex on top/along side of the dying king.  All of these readings gave us a taste of what was to come later in the scripts.  I certainly was left wanting to see more.  Actors:  look to these scripts for acting classes. They will give you some great material to work with.  Directors and producers:  please stage them for us.

The evening ended with a conversation between Barker and David Ian Rabey. Here are some random thoughts/ideas that stood out for me.

Mythic history:  Many of Barker’s plays are set in a mythic past.  For Barker, this frees the audience from things that come with a play set in contemporary times.  It gives the playwright a kind of freedom to create because the audience, in some sense, doesn’t have to spend time worrying about “accuracy.”

Audiences:  When writing a play, Barker doesn’t consider the audience.  When staging a play, he doesn’t think that the audience validates the work.  He wants to atomize the audience into different factions.  The breakdown of conscientious is difficult to do.

Transgression:  Barker wants to write plays about someone who does the wrong thing, who doesn’t find the right thing to do.  Who doesn’t have to.  He is interested in transgressive characters committed to the wrong action.

Turning points:  When Barker became nauseated by social realism in the theatre and realized that he needed to find another way of making plays.  When he realized that his theatrical discourse must be poetic.  When he chose to focus on the tragic.

Ignorance:  When Barker knows too much about what he is writing, he will tend to mess it up.  He has a great respect for ignorance. Theatre is a confusing place, not an educational place.  It is chaotic.

The evening ended with Barker reading several of his poems.

— JOE HEISSAN

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