Review: Howard Barker Double Bill, Arcola Theatre

This powerful double bill of works by the playwright is fascinating to watch but feels empty of meaning that makes it difficult to fully enjoy. 

Howard Barker Isonzo credit Nick Rutter
Howard Baker’s The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo. Photograph by Nick Rutter. 

This double bill of work directed by Robyn Winfield-Smith starts with The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo, which for the majority of the time takes place in the dark. It tells the story of Isonzo who is blind and 100 years old and Tenna who is blind and 17 years old who are getting married and soon engage in a battle of wits that reveals the pair to be more of a match then they were expecting.

By taking away the audience’s sight and focusing their attention on the words through headphones, which is a 3d audio experience that is chilling to listen to as it sounds as though Isonzo (Nicholas Le Prevost) is literally over your shoulder the entire time.

Although Barker’s piece is undoubtedly unusual, and leaves the audience wondering what happened to the characters (there is no certain resolution at the end), the performances of Le Prevost and Emily Loomes as Tenna really convey the powerful effect of words and the character’s opposing views keep the audience gripped.

But the trouble is, although taking away the audience’s sight is an excellent way of making them understand the character’s perspectives, it feels overly long and at times self-indulgent.

Howard Barker Judith credit Nick Rutter (3)
Judith: A Parting From the Body. Photograph by Nick Rutter. 

Meanwhile, in the second performance it is more of a traditional production of Judith: A Parting From The Body. It tells the story of Judith who on the night before battle enters camp to murder the Assyrian General Holofernes.

There is a great intensity once again from the performances of all involved, but particularly Catherine Cusack as Judith, whose powerful and commanding presence really controls the direction in which the production takes. Kristin Hutchinson as The Servant, adds a few lighter moments to proceedings in a delicate and not overpowering way to put a smile on the audience’s face but at the same time we can see her anger and determination to make sure the General ends up dead.

Once again, just as in The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo, Barker’s use of language is clever and yet occasionally it seems as though it is trying too hard to make its point clear.

However, at the same time it is a bitter and powerful piece of drama that really grabs the audience’s attention thanks to the direction of Robyn Winfield-Smith, using lighting and sound to great effect to build up the tension for the climax.

But the trouble is that  there is no real firm conclusion. What happens after they leave camp? Do they get caught? Do they celebrate? It feels as though the audience is left with more questions than answers.

Although there is no doubting the cleverness and the ease in which these two very different pieces of drama fit well together and both are chilling to watch, it all feels a bit empty and soulless that it is a bit of a struggle to fully appreciate unless you are familiar with Barker’s work. But there is certainly no doubt that it was an interesting way to spend the evening.

Howard Barker Double Bill is on at the Arcola Theatre until the 19th December. For more information and to book tickets visit: . 

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