FringeReview UK 2017
Revived at The Print Room by Gerrard McArthur, Howard Barker’s 2012 In the Depths of Dead Love is designed by Justin Nardella, lit by Adrian Sandvaer with sound from Ed Lewis. Cast includes Stella Gonnet. Till February 11th.
Howard Barker’s 2012 In the Depths of Dead Love is revived at The Print Room by Gerrard McArthur, with memorable design by Justin Nardella, equally beautifully lit by Adrian Sandvaer with crisp sound from Ed Lewis. The Print Room has mesmerising form in reviving neglected classics and contemporaries, and champions Barker. This production’s already memorable for off-stage protests at ethnically insensitive casting and it’s indeed worth looking at recent Barker productions in context first.
This play was first broadcast on Radio 3 in November 2014, where radio’s aural ambivalence allowed white British actors unfettered scope. In December 2015, the Arcola, known for its strong BME profile, mounted a double-bill of Barker’s The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo and Judith: A Parting from the Body. Whilst no-one’s yet suggested Judith or Holofornes hail from Palestine (as Barker ripostes), it’s true that the first play depicting Japanese characters was otherwise very British: Nicholas Le Prevost in a black-out played off an equally white actor Emily Loomes (they’re portrayed as one hundred and twenty-one respectively; she’s a twelfth wife).
This pitch darkness rendered the production perhaps on an acceptable par with Radio 3’s. It’s important to see how and why the current production has slid an important notch further still: and what all theatres – and broadcasters – might learn from it.
It was a near-debacle for another reason: Le Prevost a Barker stalwart was performing at the RSC, and left his recorded voice merely, necessitating Loomes’ record hers too. Further, whereas Loomes was required to open and close with her live voice and dimly-lit, she couldn’t take a curtain call. It was somewhat cruel and I think some at the Arcola felt uncomfortable.
No-one however thought to protest over ethnicity, as I said to one lead protester outside the Coronet, a theatre historian. He agreed, adding: ‘it’s here a line has to be drawn.’
Barker’s Chinese Ruritania he also agreed is root cause of this: it wrong-foots productions, and Barker works with a circle of loyal actors. The theatre’s initially unskilful responses to protests have been actively superseded; it’s Barker’s choices that give pause.
Barker of course isn’t trying to portray either Chinese or Japanese characters as such, but a British Brechtian dream of them, a way of interposing distance to distil myth. Understood: however despite his protests at the Arts Council’s becoming sociological and well-aimed criticisms of British culture – he’s feted and produced abroad but not here – Barker refuses to take lessons from history that aren’t remote.
Such insensitivity – ethnicity rendered as exotica – isn’t acceptable now. Barker ’s aesthetically in 1970s aspic. Which he also is to more creative effect elsewhere: unbendingly conceptual, anti-naturalist, uncompromisingly unspecific, as pared-down as any Peter Brook production, which this one resembles.
This further alienates him from the UK. It’s a great pity Barker – one of Europe’s great originals at his best – refuses to address the more insensitive results of his solitude. He lends too much ammunition to real enemies of art, and shuns potential friends he could still make. We all lose.
In the Depths of Dead Love is stunningly drained of the present. A well with a mirrored lid gapes open lipping around bleached wood. Lighting constantly plays on this blanched landscape. A banished poet tends the well into which suicides hurl themselves for a fee (if they renege, they pay double). A kind of Dignitas for the antediluvian world.
It sets off a fable in ancient China, with exilic overtones: Ovid, Mandelstam. The expired poet Chin (a darkly swaggering James Clyde) is banished for unspecified wrongs: licentiousness or knowing too much – Augustus’ banishing Ovid to the Black Sea for knowing scandal of his daughter, Mandelstam’s oral poem lampooning Stalin. Certainly Lord Ghang (a raspingly-etched William Chubb) suggests such an authority, chillingly stalking Chin in the darkness, with a still more chilling proposal.
His wife Lady Hasi in a memorable etching of iron frailty by Stella Gonnet, has daily wished to throw herself into the well, but lacks courage. Ghan’s exhortation is simple: ‘shove her’. Chin, however, is erotically fixated on Hasi’s shoulders. To further relieve this tenebrous comedy, Jane Bertish as Mrs Hu looks after Chin, interposing his lugubriousness with commonsense anxieties – an acute balance of comedic mother hen and genuine intimations of harm. Finally an uncredited student lacking the wherewithal to pay for the privilege, one might say squats for eternity, hurling himself over without paying. In another resonant image Hasi projects the sequent ranks of hurlees, all falling stacked above each other, the most ancient now just tumbling bones. Barker’s humour is certainly bone-dry.
The love-triangle Chin discovers isn’t equilateral. For one thing Ghang’s clear that Chin is ripe for his own termination with the well, by availing himself of it. For another Chin’s love is apparently one-sided. Crises – partly farcical – uncover other vulnerabilities and desires; and the whole ends without any of the tricksiness many other dramatists might have sought, though it flirts with them. Barker refuses neat answers when he can fray us with questions.
He’s certainly managed that, both inside and outside the play – which should be remembered, paradoxically, as one of his warmer offerings, in a memorably hypnotic and beautifully wrought – if reverently drawn-out – production. It’s important to register firm protest, see lessons learned, and not to misunderstand a time-lag of sensitivity too far when the real enemies hover. But it’s high time Barker brought himself in from the cold too.