Jun 6, 2007

Howard Barker

More casualties from the relentless machine-gunning inflicted by the Arts Council's recently imposed cuts are coming stumbling back from the front line. The latest is Howard Barker, who is screaming and shouting about the fact that cuts to the funding of his very well respected Wrestling School will essentially mean the end of the company.

In the comments there's a discussion/banging of heads about the fact that Barker's company has been going for 20 years and still requires life support from the Arts Council to sustain itself. The commentator who is demanding theatre remain self-sustaining is, in my opinion, missing a couple of important points:

Howard Barker is one of the few playwrights who has likes to remain Big. His plays are absurd, glorious, (slightly self-important), brave, angry monstrous things. A wild, messy bridge between John Webster and Sarah Kane (who was an enormous Barker fan, playing the lead in Victory while at university) and one of the most important playwrights this country has produced in the last 30 years.

His productions have the audacity to include streams of characters as long as your arm; they are long, rambling, poetic, esoteric and require a lot of intensive work to do well. Since the second World War as actor's rates have (quite rightly) risen considerably it has become nigh on impossible to produce work that will ever be profitable with a large company of actors. If even the big West End Musicals who pack in tourists and day trippers at £45 a seat 8 performances a week are struggling to make ends meet there is little chance for a company the size of the Wrestling school to ever be financial viable and continue to produce Barker's work, while he remains defiantly, well, himself. There are few places that can afford to straight drama with large casts these days, and the two (the RSC and the National) that do rarely have any interest in Barker's writing.

The idea that theatre is product that should live or die on its commercial success is similarly problematic for me. To the same degree that it is entertainment theatre should be a challenge, a provocation. Thanks to the exclusion zone, protest in London has been transformed into a form of state-sanctioned theatre. They gather in parliament square and they wave their banners and the government claps along - how worthy, how democratic - but it is the illusion of dissent. Any protest vetted by the government is no longer a protest. Theatre rid itself of those shackles with some help from Gaskill and Bond back in the 60s (though some would see them reimposed). Now theatre needs to become a force for protest. Like Mark Wallinger's State Britain, glossed as art we can bring loud, angry, voices back into the centre of London. That's why we need Barker, he is (as he himself would no doubt state) a voice. A glorious, discursive voice that should have the chance to speak.

As has been Barker's standard line for over 20 years, people will not want to listen. People will not rush to buy out the best seats. Ticket Hot lines will not sell out in under 10 minutes. But this is not the purpose of his drama. It is different kind of voice, in an era when so much (blue, red, yellow...) sounds the same.

Barker being the kind of guy that seems to breath quotations, it's inevitable I will end with one (though not the prologues to Bite of the Night - which everyone should read):
A new theatre will be over-ambitious. It will not settle for anything less than a full company of actors. The stage should be swarming with life. No new writer should be taught economy, no matter what economy demands. The new writer should be shown that the stage is a relentless space and never a room.

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