REVIEW:Radio Victory Radio 3

'Barker's so gosh-darned good at swearing - he uses it with tremendous skill as a way of puncturing the rhetoric'
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"I wish I could be more offensive, I really do," announces the widow Bradshaw at one point in Victory. Generally speaking, it's a risky business identifying what a character in a play thinks with what the author thinks, but at this point you do feel that Howard Barker is dropping you a fairly heavy hint. If there was any way he could be ruder, more vile and repulsive, he'd be on it like a dog on a chocolate drop.

In this case, though, he really has taken offensiveness to the limit. Victory opens with the most concentrated burst of obscenity ever broadcast on radio - not just the f-word, which we've all had time to get used to since Kenneth Tynan blazed the trail, but that last great linguistic taboo, the c-word, which in the first 45 seconds of dialogue was used, at a guess, more times than it has been in the entire history of British radio. When Barker - the original b-word - breaks a taboo, it stays broken.

The extremity of Barker's language has aroused an unusual degree of interest for a Sunday evening play on Radio 3: it was announced on the news pages of the press, and the Radio Times has printed an interview with Juliet Stevenson to let people know what it's all about. In one way, this obsession with questions of language is dispiriting - you would hope we're all past the stage where we're going to giggle and blush when a playwright says the f-word; on the other hand, if we weren't a bit shocked by four-letter words, there wouldn't be any point in Barker using them.

Victory (subtitled "Choices in Reaction") is set at the time of the Restoration. Tradition paints this as a fairly romping, jolly era - out go those dreary old Puritans, in come the Merry Monarch, Restoration Comedy, floppy hats and orange-sellers - while academic historians have tended to discuss it in political and economic terms. Barker's aim is to remove any possibility of either romance or rational explanation - to show greed, vengeance and lust as history's prime motive forces, and to show that restoration, as much as revolution, tears families and individuals apart. This happens literally in the case of the late Mr Bradshaw, a regicide whose remains are dug up and dismembered by the new regime; the play follows his widow (a magnificently hysterical and nasty Juliet Stevenson) as she tries to gather up his bits and bobs.

In the context of a world where human feeling is treated with utter contempt, a bit of effing and blinding seems neither here nor there. But if effing and blinding was all it was, you still couldn't justify it on artistic grounds. The thing about Barker is that he's so gosh-darned good at swearing - he uses it with tremendous skill as a way of breaking up the dialogue's rhythms and puncturing the rhetoric. At one point, a courtier pronounces: "To kill the king is no bad thing, provided there follows restoration - it honours monarchy, is proof of indispensability." To which the king (the excellent Nicholas Le Prevost) replies: "Where's my duchess? I must grasp her arse." Well, maybe you had to be there.

The one thing you didn't feel, in Richard Wortley's fine production, was that bad language was the sign of a limited vocabulary - rather, it was a way of expanding the play's emotional vocabulary. And if the play was shocking, there was good reason for the swearing. Taken all in all, blooming good.

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