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Victory: Choices In Reaction

Howard Barker
ICENI Productions and Arcola Theatre
Arcola, Dalston
(2009)

Publicity photo: Geraldine James

For too long, our awareness of the late-seventeenth century has been based on Restoration comedies that lampoon the parvenu social climbers that accompanied Charles II's 'glorious' return to power. Howard Barker's play Victory: Choices In Reaction, first produced in 1983, provides a raw and caustic glimpse of life for those suffering the aftermath of twenty years of republican rule and puritanical fundamentalism. With the Stuart monarch's return from exile in France, the nation returned to a semblance of political normality, albeit tainted by the bloody truth that a divinely-ordained king had been beheaded and the foundation of religious belief brought into question.

Not everyone benefitted from Charles's forgiving nature. The original signatories to his father's execution, whether dead or alive, were hunted down as traitorous criminals and suffered the ultimate sanction of the law. Cromwell himself, long dead and buried, was exhumed and ritually hanged, drawn and quartered in a gruesome display of posthumous retribution. Other perpetrators of regicide received similar treatment. Returning Cavalier soldiers hounded the families of all who had sympathized with the parliamentarian cause. As in the awful years of Civil War, countrymen and women were pitted against each other in a grim battle for survival.

Barker's play follows the plight of the widow of the polemicist Bradshaw, signatory to the death warrant, whose body is discovered, dismembered and left to rot on London's city walls. Bradshaw's widow determines to retrieve all she can of her late husband's body, against the direct orders of the state, and give them a decent reburial. Her journey from social superiority to very real poverty and eventual servitude is as remarkable as it is violent.

She leaves behind a cold-hearted, stoically-minded daughter and an equally self-serving son. Her son, desperate to distance himself from danger, adopts the relative safety of a new identity. He becomes a Scottish surgeon, specializing in the pox. Chance leads them together. Chance also leads his mother into the unwelcome arms of a besotted cavalier who rapes her, leaving her pregnant and, no doubt, equally pox-ridden. Only a chance meeting with the mistress of King Charles permits the widow to gain access to the highest in the land, and to complete her quest for her husband's few remaining body parts.

Geraldine James plays the widow. James' authoritative bearing is perfectly suited to this world-weary woman whose determination and strength is so much greater than the men by whom she is surrounded. Trusting in her husband's secretary, the weak and cowardly Scrope (Karl Theobald), the widow traces a weary journey to London. James's performance never wavers in intensity and integrity.

Matthew Kelly is likewise an inspired choice as the decrepit cavalier whose uncontrollable lust and desire to see his monarch rule with strength and decency leads to tragicomic consequences. Kelly blusters and blasts like the best returning soldier. His rambling bear of a military man is at times dangerous, at others pathetic, but always watchable.

The eleven-strong cast is, however, too strong, too perfect to justify picking out individual performances. There is an acute sense of cinema about the play. Barker's explicitly sexualized dialogue (his characters repeat the 'c'-word with justifiably non-P.C. relish) thunders relentlessly on towards its goal. Anna Bliss Scully's luscious period costumes and effective, multi-layered set add to the filmic quality of the whole. Add to that Amelia Nicholson's breathtakingly adventurous direction and you have an evening of theatre which is gripping from dark and sinister beginning to painfully optimistic end.

Written in the 1980s, at a time when banking crashes had, like now, become headline news around the world, Victory: Choices In Reaction seems to be perfectly suited to our own uncomfortable times. When mention is made that the cavalier Ball has stabbed a banker, a collective ripple of existential applause becomes almost audible in the Arcola Studio space. Victory: Choices In Reaction demonstrates how accessible Barker's drama remains and how, given an enormously talented cast and creative team, good theatre can be transformed into great theatre.

Until 4th April

Reviewer: Kevin Quarmby