The Dying of Today

Howard Barker
The Wrestling School
Arcola Theatre
(2008)

Things seem a little more civilised today, but at one time a hair-cut always meant putting up with the incessant attempts of the man with the scissors to keep up a conversation about soccer (in which I had no interest) or, if more upmarket. ski-holidays (I don't ski), or a succession of other boring subjects in an attempt to appear convivial when all you wanted was to sit quietly and let him get on with it. Howard Barker's new play turns that situation upside down. Here a stranger turns up in a barber shop and, at first at least, never stops talking.

Designer Tomas Leipzig's minimalist representation of a barber shop has a token leather chair, wash-basin, towels on suspended rods, an open/closed sign, a broom, hanging aprons, a vertical line of hats on hooks and a wall panel splashed with crumpled newspapers. It is simple, hygienic and slightly menacing: what are four galvanised buckets doing hanging overhead? Lighting designer Ace McCarron bathes the back wall in red light with two slivers of orange. A sudden blast of harsh noise, a blackout and the barber is there snip-snipping very professionally at his client, each snip sound amplified in the concentrated air. Sound (by Paul Bull and Tom Lehman) is important in Gerrard McArthur's meticulously prepared production: lime juice drinks are noisily poured, knocks on the imagined door are loud, outside we hear the noises of the town, increasing in volume when the windows are later shattered, and a cacophony of falling metal gives dramatic punctuation - but all that is to come.

Mid-trim the client, bare-chested in a crumpled linen suit, asks us if we like bad news. He does, he says, and informs the barber that he is the bearer of bad news, really bad news, though he puts off saying what that news is. Instead he leaves the barber to imagine the worst.

Most of us tend not to be optimists. You don't think that unexpected knock at the door announces a cheque from the National Lottery, the policeman standing there has come to tell you there's been an accident, not just to move your car, the telegram (in the days we had them) was to announce a death. Perhaps it is something in the human psyche that we prepare ourselves for shock by imagining the worst.

Hands shaking, George Irving's monosyllabic barber listens on as Duncan Bell's enigmatic, smooth-talking visitor plays with his emotions, then the barber thinks he knows what's coming and starts to describe the horrors that he feels are about to be told to him:

A military expedition of which his son is part has failed. A fleet is sunk, "the water is thick as glue and nearly still… the drowned lay on the drowned." The army is trapped it cannot re-embark, he imagines a succession of places where his son has died, remembering his own experiences when he was himself a soldier.

"Yes," the news-bringer says to all of them, the worst of them a massacre in a quarry. As despair sets in he releases his emotions by smashing up his shop and the visitor revels in this overflowing of feeling, but then, to the visitor's dismay, begins to sweep up the devastation.

So far, I found this play fascinating, held by two stunning performances. You know how, when having a haircut, communication between hairdresser and client seems mainly to be conducted through the mirror? This production exploits that magnificently, both actors carefully placing their line of vision to communicate through an imaginary mirror enabling the audience to see every emotion - or lack of it. They handle Barker's text with skill, giving it spontaneity despite its consciously careful crafting. But at this late shift in the relationship I found his purpose difficult to interpret until he begins to set up a stoic final situation. Perhaps his meaning was too difficult for me to grasp, perhaps he is loading this exercise in dramatic situation with more than it can carry. No matter, with performances as good as these that is only a momentary aberration.

Barker's plays tend to generate enormous enthusiasm or rejection and my own feelings about them have sometimes been ambivalent. This seventy-minute piece I found held me, except for that small hiatus, but it was clear it did not grip the person next to me who perhaps was someone not so responsive to fine acting or prepared to go along with Barker's sometimes unrealistic imaginings. Certainly Barker gives us no suggestion of how the barber can possibly know so many details that the news-bringer seems to confirm as being an accurate reportage. But then this is not meant to be a piece of realism. It is an dramatic exercise that has its origin nearly twenty-five centuries ago in the disastrous Athenian expedition against Syracuse, the news of which was first heard when a survivor mentioned it while being shaved by a barber in Piraeus, before the catastrophe became known to the rest of Athens, but the twisting of the story-telling in this modern version is entirely Barker's.

At the Arcola until 22nd November 2008

Howard Loxton