Hurts Given and Received

Howard Barker

The Wrestling School

Riverside Studios

(2010)

Review by Howard Loxton

The beginning of Barker's new play is preceded by the sound of huffing and pounding that initiates a sound design by Edward Lewis's that underscores much of the action and emotion in Gerrard McArthur's production.

It makes Tomas Leipzig's set feel like a factory or foundry and at one side of the stage an oversized high desk like that of a Dickensian clerk or a factory overseer is occupied by a tousle-haired man in a black waistcoat. When a man in a leather apron comes in, approaches along the angled wooden walkway that looks as though it is suspended from above as if over a vast work hall and then calls him boss, that image seems confirmed.

The workman says he is ill and is told to go lie in the shade and drink vinegar. He says he is dying and is told to go home and die there -- but to put his tools away first. It is a classic, almost cliché image of the exploitive industrialist. But this man, whom the succession of people who appear on the walkway call Bach, is not a capitalist factory owner. The raw material here is words. The man is a poet, a poet who occasionally collapses in paroxysms of agony or inspiration, a man who ruthlessly and inescapably exploits everyone with whom he comes into contact in creating his verse.

Barker has never been the most explicit of writers and if, like me you leave it to the play to convey things, putting aside programme notes and pre-publicity unless the audience is given something they are asked to read in advance, it takes a little time to grasp that the amplified scratch of Bach's pen is bleeding verse not calculating profit.

A degree of obscurity is one of Barker's attractions, especially as it is carried on the richness of his language.

Barker is not after naturalism but he understands how to write to be spoken and sound real and here has an accomplished cast, led by Tom Riley as Bach, to deliver his verse as though the words were their own. As his poet ruthlessly abandons or destroys his friends and lovers, one can't help thinking of poets such as Hughes and Plath, of the excesses of the Byrons, Baudelaire and Beats, but this is not just about those sacrificed for the work but the sacrifice of the poet him- or herself.

Along with the arrogance of the artist and the adulation of his audience who eagerly await each new outpouring, there is also an allegory for the poetic succession, how new voices exploit and build on the work of those before them.

Is this the way great works are created? Can a poet only reach the heights by surrendering both others and himself? You could, of course, simply read this as a poet's apologia - don't blame me, blame my calling - but its implications and its excesses continue to resonate long after it is over and, whatever Barker is really setting out to tell us, his sense of the theatrical moment and his fluid language, served by fine actors and an accomplished production with powerful visual images - I've never previously seen nudity make such a strong statement - makes this hold for more than 100 minutes without any interval.

At Riverside until 9th May 2010