For the last few weeks, I've been back at Rose Bruford, directing Victory by Howard Barker with second year students. Although it's a different group of actors, the choice of play is a deliberate continuation of the work on non-naturalistic / political text which I did there before Christmas. Not that Barker is even remotely Brechtian, or at all PC. This is a play in which the "c" word is proclaimed nine times in less than two minutes in the very first scene. If ever there was a statement of iconoclastic intent.....
I've not directed Barker's work before, and I've always felt a bit dubious about it, although I've seen a lot of his plays (and boy is he prolific). Chris Corner's invited me to most of the Wrestling School shows over the last few years - I enjoyed The Seduction of Almighty God at Riverside in the autumn. And I have very fond memories of the Almeida's productions in the early years of the McDiarmid-Kent regime there: Scenes from an Execution and A Hard Heart. But my suspicion has tended to be that this is cold, intellectual work, with only a wilfully perverse and oblique connection to human behaviour, and little real political edge. How wrong I was! Working on Victory, I've come to feel this is incredibly powerful, funny and pertinent writing. It yields a lot of fruit in the rehearsal room. I'm left wondering whether the Wrestling School doesn't suffer a bit from Barker directing most of the productions himself: it seems to me that he directs the humour out of his own work.
Victory is set in the Restoration, with the returning Cavaliers taking revenge on the Puritans. Not that the piece is at all historical (the central character is Susan Bradshw, the widow of Richard Bradshaw, who was President of the Court that condemned Charles I - the historical Mary Bradshaw was married to John, and died before he did!). The razor wit and wild debauchery of Charles II is there, as is the deep seriousness of the Revolution - but it's really a play about modern times (it dates from 1983) dressed up in period frocks. The power of money is at the heart of it (great scene in the Bank of England) and alongside that sits the deep malaise of the present moment - the lack of any real dream, any real hope for the future.
Doing the play with young people, that theme emerges more painfully than ever. For all the success of their acting (and they've done this difficult piece incredibly well), there's very little understanding of, or interest in, this key theme. It's as if Thatcher's Children have taken over the younger generation: not only is there very little idealism, there isn't even much sense of its absence. The ending, when Bradshaw's daughter declares her intention to publish her father's visionary book, feels very moving in this student performance precisely because of its incongruity. This isn't the fault of this talented bunch of young people, of course - but of the world in which they are growing up: a world obsessed with the material success of the self, and with the utilitarian value of culture, education, everything. Because, in spite of everything, they DO have all the energy and vitality that youth has always had - it's social and educational conditioning which makes this so difficult to focus towards any sense of an impossible dream.