Howard Barker interview; a pariah in his homeland, 2002

17th October 2002

We don’t like him – he doesn’t care

Playwright Howard Barker tells Dominic Cavendish he knows exactly why he is a pariah in his own land. First published in the Daily Telegraph, Oct 17, 2002.

In mainland Europe, Howard Barker is regarded as a major dramatist – and the doors to some of the biggest state-subsidised theatres on the continent are routinely flung wide open for him. Next year, in France, there will be no fewer than seven productions of his work.

In England, however, where he was born and bred, and continues to live, he is theatre’s great pariah.

He has never been invited into the National, and can’t get a look-in any more at the RSC or the Royal Court.

This year, his company, the Wrestling School, set up to ensure that his work gets produced, and to a high standard, has once again had to scrabble around to find arts venues in the UK willing to receive the latest offering from the prolific Barker pen: Gertrude, a radical treatment of Hamlet that redirects our attention and sympathy towards the Queen.

Barker isn’t the only contemporary playwright to be overlooked by the theatre establishment; there’s a clutch of writers, all born within a 15-year period, and whose surnames, curiously, all begin with “B” – Howard Brenton, Edward Bond, Peter Barnes, Steven Berkoff – who have found themselves increasingly marginalised over the past decade or so.

But Barker is the one who most resembles the prophet without honour in his own land, if nothing else because of his sheer, shaming determination to keep churning out new plays; he has now written more than 40 – and directs many of them, as well as finding time to write poems and paint pictures.

He does, it must be pointed out, have advocates here. The acting community harbours many admirers. Juliet Stevenson, Harriet Walter, Anna Massey and, in her day, Glenda Jackson, who starred in his best-known work Scenes From an Execution, have each given their all for him in his robust female roles.

Ian McDiarmid is his most loyal supporter, pronouncing him to be a “genius”, comparable to Shakespeare: “He offers such immense metaphorical and emotional richness. His work isn’t done nearly as often as it should be.”

Occasionally, too, there are flare-ups of interest. Earlier this year, the Lyceum in Edinburgh finally gave Victory – written in 1984 – its Scottish premiere. Next month, the Mercury Theatre in Colchester revives The Europeans (1990), a typically epic piece set during the 1683 siege of Vienna, when the Ottoman Empire suffered a crushing defeat.
It was commissioned but never staged by the RSC. “It’s been seen across Europe, but it’s hardly known here,” says Gregory Floy, the Mercury’s artistic director. “He’s undoubtedly a major writer who deserves a reappraisal.”

Barker, now 56, isn’t holding his breath. After years in the wilderness, looking out to sea from his hillside Brighton home, he has formulated very precise views as to why his work can’t get on to the country’s most prominent stages – and very well-rehearsed lines about his hardly caring.

Spending a lunchtime in his company is an exhausting, exhilarating business. His remarks have an urgent, elevated quality, and a chill air of remoteness clings to him.

“I’m not terribly upset about being neglected,” he begins. “I’m interested in it as a phenomenon. Clearly, there are theatres here that have the resources to do my work well, because I write very big plays. The Olivier stage, for example, would be very good for a lot of my plays. One has to examine why I’m being excluded.”
He has the answer readily to hand: “It’s got to be about the cultural ideology of our time, and how this work appears to trespass against that.”

The prevailing cultural orthodoxy is, as he sees it, “liberal-humanist, left-leaning, socially progressive”. “My work is amoral,” he explains. “I don’t take a moral attitude to acts that occur in my plays. That’s what separates me from most writers. I’m not English in that way at all.” He adds: “The English are a very moralising people.”

He operates exclusively in the realm of tragedy, a place of extreme desire, pain and death. What distinguishes his tragedies from “classical ones is that those are, by and large, ethical. They tend to show transgression followed by punishment. In my works, that doesn’t occur. There is transgression, but there’s no punishment.” So distinctive does he hold his work to be that he has even coined a phrase to describe it: “the theatre of catastrophe.”

“What stops so many writers from producing great characters is that they don’t give them autonomy because they’re trying to tell you something about the world. They want you to think as they do.” This even extends, in his view, to Shakespeare. As with Seven Lears (1990), which pondered what became of Mrs Lear, Gertrude examines a “silence” in the original text.

“The engine of Hamlet is Gertrude’s liaison with Claudius. And yet Shakespeare doesn’t attend to that much. When Hamlet challenges his mother, she becomes apologetic almost immediately.”

He continues: “The Prince’s adolescent moralising has always appalled me. I’ve demonised him, making him sexually repressive, and granted an emotional freedom to Gertrude which she can’t possess in Shakespeare because he’s obliged to punish her for her mischief.”

Barker’s only guiding star is his imagination, which he follows into some dark, visceral quarters; his works are rife with cruelties, slaughters, rapes and mutilations.
In The Europeans, the heroine Katrin, whose breasts have been hacked off by “Islam’s infantry”, unashamedly gives birth to the child of a war-rape in public.

Over his 30-year career, he has moved away from social realism into fictionalised historical and mythological settings and off into landscapes of pure invention. What offends people most about his approach, he says, is not so much instances of graphic horror as that he refuses to supply his audiences with a readily appreciable meaning.
He doesn’t lay claim to ownership of any truth or relevance. He aims to unsettle rather than to please. That’s why critics, geared up to elucidate, can be so vehement against him, he reckons. “It’s so dominant, this idea that theatre has to have a function, a use value,” he shudders.

His refusal to pander to audience needs has seen him be damned as “elitist” – “a charge levelled against anyone who won’t conform to a Blairite cosmopolitanism”. Conformity is not an option for Barker. He goes his own determined way, and it’s up to those who dare to chase after him.

This article was originally published here

Leave a Comment!

Fields marked with * are mandatory

About Me
Dominic Cavendish - Theatre Critic & Journalist

Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice

Read More
Join my email club

I'll let you know by email whenever I add new content to the site: