When Howard Barker is at the top of his game, as he is in this play, his words sing. Although ‘ In the depths of dead love’ is very much within the camp of recent Barker plays about the place of the poet in society (i. e. Dogdeath in Macedonia), it is also a return to an earlier, playful Barker.
Barker, our best playwright (and yes, there are categorical standards of value) and our best tragedy writer, is said to have forsworn jokes because they come too easily. Here, the jokes are back and how they flow. Unpacking a joke is a horrible thing to do, an unfunny thing to do. But…but….Here, the rhythm of Barker’s jokes is to take us to a plateau of intellectual discourse or a moment of heightened grief and then to present something so everyday, so mundane, it is ridiculous.
The play opens with pulsating music as a huge heavy metal disc is pulled free of a well, a bottomless well.
The play is set in ancient China, and the well- keeper is Mr. Chin, a poet who has been exiled by the Emperor. In buying the well, Mr. Chin bought a running business. People pay to come to the well and commit suicide. Some, like Lady Has (Stella Gonet) and the student, come to contemplate suicide.
One night, Lord Ghang (William Chubb), Lady Has’ husband, enters Chin’s enclave to suggest that what his wife really needs is a shove. He is willing to pay Chin to do the needful and
promises to talk the Emperor into allowing Chin to return to the city. Since Chin has stopped writing, a return to the city would, he believes, be a return to poetry. The play revolves around the dilemma: Will she jump? Will he push?
Chin’s distaste is not a moral distaste for the act but a linguistic distaste for the word ‘shove’, or so he tells himself.
Aside from, I think, Stella Gonet, the cast are all Wrestling School stalwarts (the theatre company
Barker set up to perform his work); all are at ease with Barker’s particular idiom, the rhythm
of his words and his concept and practice of drama. That the actors play so well off each other is due, of course, to their considerable skill. It is also due to Gerrard McArthur’s direction. His direction is, as always, beautiful because so lightly felt. Both he and Hanna Berrigan get Barker and so direct from a point of confidence. Other directors, less in sync with Barker’s ethos, have ruined his work.
Doing a lot of Shakespeare can make actors artificial. This, of course, has nothing to do with the work itself but with the way it is often directed and produced- aside from in the case of the greats such as G. Wilson Knight, John Barton and Peter Brook. Working consistently on Barker’s plays, on the other hand, makes actors muscular. And you can spot them a mile away.
Even in such a minor role as Mrs Hu, the housekeeper, Jane Bertish (amongst others, Seven Lears – one of my favourite Barker plays- and more recently, Blok/Eno) shines. Having watched her for years I am astounded at her range.
Several years back, I saw Michael Sheen’s Hamlet at the Young Vic, a hopeless production with, I think, a faulty premise: What if ‘Hamlet’ takes place in a psychiatry ward? This obliviated, in one stroke, the concept of volition and agency. The actor playing Claudius, James Clyde, stole that show and I couldn’t take my eyes off him.
Mr. Chin in ‘ In the depths of dead love’ is a part any actor with grit would die for. Few, if any, could bring to it what James Clyde does. The role is electric. Chin has some gorgeous lines: lyrical, contemplative and sheer hilarious, including a dig at ‘perfumed suicides ‘ and what begins as a ‘King Lear’ allusion and turns into a fine joke. Lady Has asks for his hand.
Chin: Let me wipe it first.
Lady Has: There’s no need.
Chin: I’d like to.
In a world that is staid, Chin, like the best of Barker’s heroes, is exuberant. That exuberance always manifests itself in eloquence and in this way, Barker’s hero is always, in his sensibility, as he is in Shakespeare’s work, a poet, the one with an imagination that runs unchained. But here, that exuberance also takes a physical form. Chin’s words give us one kind of funny; the contortions of his body another reason to smile, if not laugh. Barker gives Chin swathes of emotional switches and Clyde’s execution shows why he is one of our finest actors.
This is a superb production, a play I can’t stop thinking about. I’m going again. I hope more
people get to catch it before it closes this Saturday.