Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Review: The Fence in its Thousandth Year

The Fence in its Thousandth Year
The Fence in its Thousandth Year by Howard Barker

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

You don't need the pseudo-musicals based on The Beatles and The Kinks that keep popping up round London to remind you that 60s nostalgia is big business. Howard Barker, whose first play was performed in 1970, isn't a nostalgist for the era; he's still living there. Those bold 60s experiments in theatre made by young playwrights as they sought to wrench themselves free from the shackles of the 'well-made play' and its bourgeois values are mostly viewed now as quaint and even idiotic. Like [b:Ptolemy's Almagest|436352|Ptolemy's Almagest|Ptolemy||425259] in the field of astronomy, they were important staging posts in the development of theatre but no longer to be taken seriously on their own merits.

Yet in 2006, Barker was still writing that kind of play. Characters with names like Algeria, Photo, Doorway and Youterus (who is male, naturally) scream, swear, copulate, fall over, display their privates and talk in riddles. There is, of course no obvious plot, presumably because that would mean submitting the play to the power structures of the patriarchy, or whatever it is these playwrights feel they are subverting by writing plays nobody can understand.

Seldom do one character's words bear much or any relation to another's: all that matters is their own feelings, leaving us with a play without empathy. If the characters can't communicate with each other, how can they communicate to the audience? The actors' job is made harder by Barker refusing to punctuate their speeches (are capital letters and full stops the bayonets of the oppressor?); not only do the characters fail to communicate to each other or the audience, the author refuses to communicate effectively with the actors.

You could make an intellectual argument in favour of this approach. As Barker himself said,
“It's time we started taking our audiences more seriously, and stop telling them stories they can understand.”
"A good play puts the audience through a certain ordeal. I'm not interested in entertainment."
Barker is a vigorous and eloquent proponent of theatre as a challenging medium. If only his words on the stage were as engaging as his words about the stage. Yet, if forced to choose between the Beatles stage musical and a performance of The Fence in its Thousandth Year, I'd still choose Barker – if only for the challenge and to find out whether his plays achieve in performance what they fail to achieve on the printed page. Even so, both shows suffer from the same artistic sterility, failing to recognise that the world has moved on. Barker keeps plugging away, stuck in an outdated style that was superseded by [a:Caryl Churchill|85149|Caryl Churchill|], having closed his mind decades ago. He has quoted one of his own characters as reflecting his own view on communication:
"I write from ignorance. I don't know what I want to say, and I don't care if you listen or not."
As a book, I despised The Fence in its Thousandth Year. As an actor, I can't imagine how it could be performed as anything but the pretentious mess you see on the page. But as an actor, I also know that a good director can find things I can't find in a script and create something amazing. Maybe the problem isn't that Barker is too challenging; it's that I'm not up to the challenge. Maybe the smug fool is me.

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