The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo / Judith: A Parting From The Body

Howard Barker
REND Productions
Arcola Theatre (Studio 2)

Emily Loomes as Tenna in The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo Credit: Nick Rutter
Kristin Hutchinson as the Servant, Catherine Cusack as Judith and Liam Smith as Holofernes in Judith: A Parting of the Body Credit: Nick Rutter

Commendations to REND Productions for mounting this double bill. Short plays are today often offered as stand-alone presentations and it is good to see a company following an older tradition of pairing (if not tripling) one act plays to makeup a full-length programme.

Here they offer the London première of one of Howard Barker’s more difficult plays (first staged in Dublin in 2001 directed by the author) coupled with his more accessible and better know Judith, which has been called his masterpiece.

The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo

The 12th Battle of Isonzo took place in Slovenia close to the Isonzo River in 1917 when the Austrian army attacked the Italian frontline using gas. For the Italians, it was a humiliating defeat, the greatest in their history; in this play, Isonzo becomes a character and the defeat would appear to be his.

First produced in Dublin in 2001, directed by the author, this production is its London première. It presents a 17-year-old girl on the day of her marriage to a very old man embarking upon his twelfth and presents their verbal and psychological power struggle exploring concepts of lust and intimacy and the anticipation of sex.

Director Robyn Winfield-Smith has chosen to present it almost entirely in darkness, the audience listening for over an hour on headphones to three-dimensional audio. There is sound logic behind that for both the protagonists are blind and with the main action consisting of the bride undressing on the instruction of the bridegroom.

Denying spectators vision both puts them in the place of the characters and avoids any presentational difficulties in showing nudity and performing a sexual encounter that is very explicit.

The dimly-lit figure of the bride is centre stage as the audience enter, seated on a slightly raised podium surrounded by outward facing lamps whose dazzle puts everything else behind them into darkness. Gregory Batsleer’s music is already playing on the headphones. Then all is darkness until moments before the play ends.

The spacial effects of the recording are extremely effective as voices move far and distant around and behind you, a narrator whispering an occasional few words describing action (though not all in the script). It is an impressive audio experience but its incomprehensibility makes it seem very long.

It isn’t just that Barker’s text is very demanding but the delivery, which reflects his verse forms, is frequently rapid, moves so suddenly from shouting to murmurs and is so sharply punctuated that sense become elusive.

Nicholas Le Prevost, as Isonzo, is clearly spoken and hypnotically interesting but sometimes more mesmeric than comprehensible and Emily Loomes, as the girl Tenna, swamped by atmospheric echo and changing pitch word by word sometimes sounds like a consonant-less operatic diva, words simply sounds and, set more distant, sometimes almost inaudible (unless that was a headphone misbalance).

The ability to follow what is happening is only intermittent, understanding even more distant.

Judith: A Parting From The Body

This is the biblical Judith, the Israelite widow who beheaded the Assyrian general Holofernes, her story given a radical rethinking by Barker.

Director Robyn Winfield-Smith doesn’t hide the violence of this play in darkness. She has directed it before (at the Cock Tavern in 2011) with the same leading actors and with designer Rosanna Vize again presents it with a row of modelled heads placed below a sword in its scabbard displayed more as symbols than as setting.

The costume is almost modern with the General in a waistcoat, Judith in trailing evening dress and the servant who attends her in conventional peasant costume.

As Holofernes, in his tent awaiting a woman for the night before a major battle, Liam Smith gives him no military swagger. If he is cruel, it shows more in his lack of emotion even as begins to talk of death, for there is going to be a major battle tomorrow which will decide the fate of Israel.

Judith talks of death too, as her servant tells him. She has her own intentions. Catherine Cusack gives her a patrician confidence, but, undermined by the situation, balks at the instruction to undress.

Although Holofernes arrogantly issues orders, he speaks openly and frankly. Half-dressed, Judith finds he is not the man that she expected. She is attracted and not just by their intellectual exchanges.

Judith has a choice between answering her personal needs or her ideological intentions and Barker shows the way in which violence breeds violence not in conventional revenge but in what it does to the killer, however idealistic their intention. This is about the cost of war and more.

Cusack and Liam eschew obvious histrionics to deliver an attention compelling confrontation and Kristin Hutchinson as the outspoken servant adds caustic commentary in another well-judged performance.

After the demands made by the first play, this Judith is a production given clarity.

If you have questions about Howard Barker’s work, there is an opportunity to ask them at an interview with the dramatist and a Q & A session before the performance on 2 December between 7:00 and 7.30PM. There is also a post-show discussion with the cast and director on 7 December.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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