The Fence

Howard Barker
The Wrestling School
Theatre Royal, York
(2005)

The fence publicity image

It may be only halfway through 2005, but if there were an award for "Most Pretentious Programme Notes" the winner would probably be Howard Barker. "The death of a ruling class the decay of a culture long before it was overthrown, did it not renounce its authority? Was it not consumed with self-loathing? And the source of this, was it not shame? Shame as the contagion of cultures, as the inflammable material for a personal auto-da-fé Let us leave such spurious ambitions as truth-telling to the journalists, the reporters of the real world with their mission to educate us in their particular prejudices "

I must admit that after reading this (and much, much more in the same vein) I wasn't exactly in a frenzy of anticipation to see the play itself. Yet I found The Fence compulsively watchable, superbly acted and directed (by Barker himself) and altogether fascinating - even though I'm evidently one of those people described by the author as emerging from of the theatre saying "I did not understand the play but I felt it "

Barker's complex and poetic language demands as much concentration from the audience as any classical or Jacobean play, and The Fence owes much to both forms of drama. A fictional modern state (the costumes by Billie Kaiser suggest the late 1940's) has for centuries been split in two by the Fence. On one side live the Thieves, demonised untermenschen who periodically attempt to break through into the "civilized" half, which is ruled by an aristocracy straight out of a play by John Webster. The sexually voracious Duchess Algeria (Victoria Wicks) has just buried her third husband and loses no time in acquiring a fourth, Mr Doorway (Alan Cox). At night she secretly visits the Fence and offers herself to the men on the other side, as a result of which she has given birth to the blind prodigy Photo (Philip Cumbus), now fifteen and her lover - although ignorant of his true parentage. You may already have guessed that this play does not have a happy ending.

Barker's contempt for "the narrow, suffocating agenda of social realism" ensures that important issues such as the Palestine-Israel Wall, racism and immigration are vaguely suggested but never elaborated upon. The Duchess' realm is a land of strange, half-forgotten rituals; at one point her friend Istoria (a commanding performance by Jane Bertish) leads a group of white-clad Aryan maidens in the ceremony of throwing watering cans over the Fence. A plague of sterility threatens the future existence of the ruling class, and just as the Duchess can only be impregnated by the charismatic blind Thief Youteras (Sean O'Callaghan), her Duchy's effete aristocracy can only be revived by an infusion of vigorous new blood when the Thieves eventually break down the Fence.

Difficult, dreamlike, sometimes incomprehensible and frequently exasperating - mainly because no effort has been made to disguise the fact that all eight characters are mouthpieces for Barker rather than credible individuals - The Fence is still a challenging and brilliantly staged piece of theatre.

At the Theatre Royal, York, until 2nd July

Jill Sharp reviewed this production at the Colchester Mercury

Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson