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HOWARD BARKER DOUBLE BILL – Arcola Theatre, London.

Howard Barker Double BillIt’s not often you are called upon to sit in a Theatre for an hour in total darkness. Howard Barker’s The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo expects its audience to do that, substituting vision for a dialogue over headphones. It is a slightly alarming experience, which the cynical would say could be achieved in the comfort of your own home with a radio and a power cut. There is a brief misty glimpse at the outset of Emily Loomes, as the 17-year-old blind girl (Tenna) dressed for her wedding. Beyond that, apart for a pair of momentarily illuminated hands intertwined at a later moment, the entire experience is black.

We are in mythical territory here. Isonzo, whose twelfth battle this is, is described as “a very old man” and is also blind. “Very old is sightless. Very old is weightless,” according to the script, which stutters along to some sort of resolution, in which we also are sightless.

A black theatre, particularly the cave-like underground one in the Arcola, is more than disconcerting. But whether it brings us closer to the experience of the two characters is open to doubt. We probably understand their discomfort more, but whether we get more from the script because of that, I’m not sure. The sound quality through the headphones iss okay, but the reverb on Emily Loomes’ voice made the dialogue between the three characters– the bride, Isonzo and the reader of the stage directions, who gives us some pointers as to what might be occurring – difficult to follow.

The second half is a more traditional drama which takes as its starting point the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes.

According to the Bible, Holofernes, the Assyrian general who is about to wreak havoc on the Jewish armies, falls in love (or lust) with the beautiful widow, Judith. She visits his tent on the night before the battle, and, taking advantage of Holofernes’ intoxication, beheads him while asleep and the Assyrians are defeated.

Howard Barker’s plot alters the balance. Now, Judith is the one who provokes the action, coming to Holofernes out of the night in which periodically soldiers can be heard screaming.

Holofernes (Liam Smith) is a professional general, all too aware of his own power and awesome reputation. He wins battles almost by his presence alone, such is his single-minded, passionless capability. Judith (Catherine Cusack) comes to him with her servant, the ideologist (Kristin Hutchinson) bent on destroying the general before he can destroy Israel, and with it herself and her daughter.

The tension resides in the fact that Judith will probably have to sleep with Holofernes before she kills him, and the strangeness of her behaviour, evidenced in her words, springs from that.

Howard Barker doesn’t seem too interested in Holofernes himself. He is cruel, single-minded, purposeful and emotionless, all of which Liam Smith conveys admirably. The weak point of the play is that for it to succeed, he has to become complicit in his own death. It becomes more of a passionless and mostly unexplained suicide, than a violent moment of biblical revenge brought on by hubris.

The focus of the play is Judith, who by undertaking the murder of the general seems ultimately to become a warped and inflated version of the general himself. There is a lot to think about in her words and behaviour, and there is a troubling counterpoint between her and her servant which becomes increasingly marked and dysfunctional as the play progresses.

This production certainly has a lot of presence, but despite the efforts of director Robyn Winfield-Smith, is a bit too static to come to life. Both of these productions take us well beyond the zone of comfort we might be used to.

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Reviewed 27/11/2015

By Michael Spring

25th November – 19th December 2015
Arcola Theatre, London E8 3DL


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