The Dying of Today

Howard Barker
The Other Room
Porters, Cardiff

Leander Deeny and Christian Patterson Credit: Pallasca Photography
Christian Patterson and Leander Deeny Credit: Pallasca Photography

The choice of a play by Howard Barker as the second presentation in The Other Room’s inaugural season seems hardly less adventurous than their first—Sarah Kane’s blood-soaked Blasted. Barker has a reputation as a difficult playwright, is no longer young and trendy, and seems to be more highly regarded overseas than in the UK.

Even more problematically, The Dying of Today, first produced by Barker’s own company in 2008, is inspired by Thucycides’ history of the Peloponnesian war (you know, the one between Athens and Sparta which took place between 431 and 404 BC). A play rooted in an era in which conflict between nations was widely perceived as glorious, from an author who resists easy populism, is bound to be a hard sell.

Not to mention the fact that it is a one-act two-hander, told in real time—theatre at (I would argue) its purest and most demanding.

We find ourselves in a 1950s-style barber’s shop, where the proprietor is tending his sole customer. It quickly transpires that the patron, Dneister, is a messenger, sent to inform the city’s inhabitants of disaster—the Barber is his first port of call.

But, as the messenger anticipates telling his bloody tale, with every appearance of relish, the Barber intuits that tragedy has struck—not only his family, but the realm as a whole. Things are about to change, catastrophically.

Leander Deeny, who seems at first a little too boyish, nevertheless carries off the role of the louche, imperious messenger with Errol Flynn-esque panache. Dressed in a cravat, rolled-up white jeans and shoes without socks, he gives the impression of being a tourist—his job, after all, does entail (as the Sex Pistols might have put it) holidaying cheaply in other people’s misery, and he seems to enjoy it. Nevertheless, as the drama progresses, the façade of unconcern begins to slip.

Christian Patterson is a fiercely imposing presence as the soldier-turned-coiffeur who tries and fails to accept his loss with stoicism. His violent outbursts, prompted by grief and rage, are inevitable, and frightening.

Director Kate Wasserberg handles the developing relationship between these two wildly contrasting strangers skilfully, maintaining tension and energy throughout; even allowing the occasional moment of humour. Crucially we, the audience, play the part of the mirror through which the protagonists address one another; thus we are cleverly implicated in their developing not-quite-friendship.

Barker’s writing is intellectually rigorous without being forbidding, politically engaged while avoiding “war is hell” platitudinising. He meditates on tragedy rather than wallowing in it, and manages to be poetic without veering into abstraction.

The Dying Of Today is pessimistic—humans are essentially warlike, and we are embarrassedly gleeful spectators when it comes to the misery of others. It is also optimistic—we are capable of great intelligence, self-control, dignity, and courage when faced with extreme circumstances.

The production ends on a strangely beautiful note, soundtracked by a version of Nick Cave’s “People Ain’t No Good”, the sentiment of which is contradicted by the onstage action. Powerful, stimulating, profound and moving, this is an impressive piece of work.

Reviewer: Othniel Smith