A Modern Day Shakespeare
Howard Barker is many things, primarily a playwright but he has also been called ‘a modern day Shakespeare’. He is also a theatre director and has written many books on the workings of theatre. ‘Scenes from an Execution’ had a very successful run at the National Theatre, despite Barker’s hobby for sending in his plays knowing they would be rejected. Barker begins his talk, chaired by Mark Brown, by discussing the origins of the play. It was inspired by a painting in the Palace at Venice which depicts a battle. It was the horrid images of that painting, and the Falkland’s War, that ‘set him off’ thinking about how an individual suffers in war.
Many themes arise from the play such as the clash of cultures, yet Barker admits it’s hard to comprehend your own unconscious and questions if these themes are put there intentionally. Many of the plays themes are there because of the paintings and Falkland’s unconscious effect on him. Yet another theatrical happy accident, Barker confesses as a writer, ignorance is bliss. Maybe this can be applied to my own writing, am I trying too hard to give it meaning and purpose? Or should this be in the hands of the directors, to tease out the black and white in the shades of grey.
This goes for Barker’s ‘historical’ plays. He does not aim to real or be accurate, instead uses history as a mode. It is a way of placing a play in a world other than the here and now, distancing the audience from the right and to focus on the truth. Howard Barker believes he gives the audience a truth, yet he does not believe the theatre has a responsibility to its audience. In fact, he wants the audience to feel uncomfortable and anxiety, leaving its morals at the door.
So Barker gives the audience something that they don’t expect, and he gives the actors something very special indeed. He gives them his words. A truly hypnotic text that is full of rhythm that drives the actor onwards and should be a pleasure to read. So you may not like what this person is saying but you’ll like how they’re saying it, you are drawn into their world. It is a method of acting that is not often taught, but the playwright and director strives to teach this to his drama school pupils. He argues ‘if an actor does not understand the rhythm of what he is saying, he does not understand what he is saying.’ You are now coming to realise why they call him the modern day Shakespeare.
He notes that tragedy is a lost art form, a theory that he expands on in more detail in his book ‘Theatre of Catastrophe’. Barker argues that tragedy is an ordeal and the hero must earn his death throughout the play. It is not, as Aristotle argues, therapeutic but wound the audience, therefore tragedy must not be understood. This might go some way to explaining why Barker is more popular overseas than in his own country. It took him 35 years of writing before putting on a ‘national’ stage, whatever that is. The playwright argues that this is because of the British way; his works urges you to be speculative whereas the British are more imperial and reflective of themselves. I won’t worry too much Barker, genius is never appreciated in its own lifetime.