Wounds to the Face ~ theatre notes

Monday, June 28, 2004

Wounds to the Face

Wounds to the Face, By Howard Barker, directed by Jess Kingsford, with Stephanie Miller, Joshua Hewitt, Christopher Brown, Matt Boesenberg, Robert Meldrum, Stephen Phillips, Nina Landis, Michelle Hall, Nicki Paull, Adrian Mulraney. Black Box Theatre at Theatreworks, St Kilda.

To say that Howard Barker's plays are difficult to realise is probably an understatement. They are written to make demands - on audiences, directors, designers, and perhaps especially on actors. It is no use, for example, approaching Barker's drama with conventional ideas about psychology or biography; his characters are ciphers, fictional fantasies who blaze briefly on the stage and then vanish, people in improbable or impossible situations with only their present theatrical life to illuminate and animate their existences.

Wounds to the Face is a kind of theatrical essay on identity. Its drama is driven not by narrative but by questions: What is a face? What does it mean to "lose face"? What are we without a face? It examines these questions through a series of woundings by plastic surgery, political propaganda, desire and deception, in a fascinating blend of philosophical argument and sheer theatricality.

It opens with a woman in front of a mirror, painting and repainting herself with cosmetics, attempting to remake her face with despairing self-hatred. It's telling that the first scene is entitled "First, to love yourself", invoking a naricissism which theatricalises itself in the course of the play as a deadly struggle for power over oneself and over others. Its narrative moves through a series of surreal vignettes - a soldier whose face is destroyed by a grenade; an Emperor viewing a portrait of himself; a French aristocrat imprisoned in the Bastille who is not permitted to remove a mask; a war in classical Greece in which the Greeks are maimed by a machine designed to destroy their facial beauty; a slapstick duel to the death between two doubles.

It becomes clear that a face is a mask which hides as much as it reveals, the harbinger of an identity which can be a tyranny as much as a freedom and a desire. Like the poem in which Randall Jarrell looks at his aging face in a mirror and wonders what has happened to him, it seems to suggest: If just living can do this to you /Then living is terrible. Merely to have a face is to enter the cruel and exhilarating game of representation and identity.

Barker makes little attempt to imitate reality, although the realities he summons can have uncomfortable connections with those we recognise as our own. The only truths in his plays are what he calls "emotional truths". And these are legion: Barker's imagination moves to extremes and contradictions, often placing his historyless characters in moments of extreme sexual desire, or physical suffering, or emotional extremes of hatred and love. The more bizarre their circumstances, the more responsibility devolves onto the actor to make that circumstance real.

The risk in mounting Barker's work is that the actors might not able to deal with the complex challenges of the language. If an actor cannot find the necessary emotional truths - manifold truths, it must be said, which almost always include a corrosive irony - Barker's work collapses into nonsense or empty rhetoric, there being no other means of support for its reality. When an actor performs the text with suppleness as well as profundity, as most signally Adrian Mulraney does in his roles as the Emperor and the Dictator, the vignette lights up and its argument makes sense. I particularly liked also Stephanie Millar, who is on stage for the entire two hours assaulting her face with cosmetics, and Stephen Phillips, who plays the massively wounded soldier. But unfortunately, in this production the acting is all too often naive or mono-dimensional. The temptation is to substitute shouting and large gestures for passion, or to fall, as Robert Meldrum does, into a kind of all-purpose cod-poetic, deadening Barker's visceral language with rather too much respectful attention to its "poetry". Barker's poetry is of the robust, Shakespearean sort, and responds as badly as Shakespeare's does to self-conscious declaiming.

The design is interesting, and by splitting the stage into different playing areas makes a good fist of the cavernously difficult Theatreworks space. Even so, I wondered why some of it existed. This may sound totally anal, but I spent a fair bit of the play watching a ladder, wheelbarrow and bucket towards the back of the stage, waiting for them to be used; and when they weren't (or did I miss something?) I felt slightly cheated - and then puzzled as to why they were there in the first place, or what the piles of books on the floor meant - well, this is how I amuse myself. But the cozzies are very impressive.

Jess Kingsford's direction straddles Barker's extremes uncomfortably, falling down in the end perhaps because of its own earnestness as much as the mixed acting. The play itself, especially compared to most of Barker's oeuvre, is relatively short - in print, less than 30 pages - and I think one of the problems is simply that this production runs too long. It goes for almost two hours, and I wondered how much the length was simply to do with the mechanics of getting people on and off the huge stage of Theatreworks.

But the length is also surely in the playing: for the most part, this production tends to solemnity rather than seriousness. It is also curiously sexless, with never a real erotic moment despite the odd flash of cleavage or buttock; which is a pity, since there's lots of real and confronting sex in the text. It's a brave attempt, with some good moments, but in the end its achievement is decidedly mixed.

The Irresponsible Mr Barker

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