This double bill of two short plays by Howard Barker provides an extra-ordinary evening of theatre. The plays are disturbing and challenging – the language is rich and provocative and the linked themes of the two plays left me with thoughts racing for hours after the performance ended. The claustrophobic atmosphere of Studio 2 at the Arcola provides just the right environment for these small scale but intense works.
The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo is about the impending union of Isonzo, a Very Old Man, and Tenna, a Very Young Woman. We are led to think that both are blind but, as the action progresses, it becomes less and less clear whether this is the case. The staging is startling – as we enter, we see Tenna seated centre stage, clad in her bridal dress and we are given headphones through which we will hear the dialogue. After only a few seconds the lights are extinguished and we sit in total darkness for the remaining hour of the play, broken only by a couple of brief flashes of light when we glimpse images that momentarily illuminate the action. The language is elliptical and elusive and the nature of the impending union is always obscure. The sound we hear through the headphones is described by Arcola as ‘3D’ and it certainly allows us to imagine Isonzo and Tenna moving around the stage – at one point Isonzo seemed to be whispering in my ear, a very disquieting feeling. The words of the two characters are voiced on the recorded soundtrack by Nicolas Le Prevost and Emily Loomes; the fact that one is present in the flesh and the other only as a disembodied voice is disconcerting. The wonderful richness of the delivery of Le Prevost is not quite matched by the less compelling voice of Loomes.
The second play draws on the Old Testament story of the beheading of the Assyrian general, Holofernes by Judith, a Jewish widow. She thereby becomes a heroine, preventing the sack of her city. The subject was a favourite of renaissance painters but Barker deconstructs the story of the confrontation between Judith and Holofernes and gives a voice to the servant girl sometimes portrayed as carrying away the severed head. The interplay between the three protagonists and the way power shifts between them, particularly the startling transformation after the beheading, is absolutely gripping. The brilliant performance of Catherine Cusack as Judith, anything but the determined and seductive freedom fighter of legend, is compelling but Liam Smith as Holofernes, a general in conflict between his reputation for invincibility and his disgust at slaughter is also excellent as is Kristin Hutchinson as the servant determined that Judith will not fail her people.
Barker has a reputation as a challenging writer and these plays, and the sharply conceived productions created by Robyn Winfield Smith for The Arcola, reinforce his status as a unique creative voice. Get down to Dalston Junction for a challenging and rewarding evening.