THEATRE : The missionary position

The Castle Riverside Studios, London
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The Castle is the Howard Barker play that even fully paid-up Barker-phobes are forced to admit has terrific theatrical power. Whether it possesses much intellectual cogency is another matter. First produced a decade ago by the RSC, it is revive d now in a scathing, balefully comic production by Kenny Ireland and the Wrestling School, which last week visited the Riverside Studios en route to Paris, Berlin and then a regional tour of Britain.

The proceedings are kicked off by a plot premise that's almost Pythonesque. After seven years away on a crusade, a knight, Stucley (James Clyde) returns to his estate keyed up for the expected resumption of relations with his wife (Rebecca Charles). In her honour he has, most un-Crusader-like, kept himself pure during all those years biffing the infidel for Christ. Instead of falling into her arms, though, he runs smack into an anticlimax of belief-beggaring proportions. Not only has the wife taken a lesbian lover and given birth to bastards, but the women have established a Utopian gynocracy in which vegetarianism, wearing flowers in your hair, and not liking men much appear to be three key planks.

It looks as though the stage is set for an allegory of the female principle (as represented by the a medieval incarnation of the women of Greenham Common) versus the male (as represented by early advocates of the arms race). This latter is dramatised through the eponymous castle which Stucley, with the aid of an embittered prisoner of war, the Arab engineer Krak (SeanBaker), has constructed as a paranoid defence. It is, of course, a paradoxical provocation to war and the proliferation of further retaliatorycastles.

History proves so unresistingly malleable to Barker's requirements that the play seems to be set less in the Middle Ages than in some anonymous European transit lounge of the soul, which the charitable might call a mythic plane. Certainly, for a medievalploughman's widow the lesbian Skinner (superbly played by Jennie Stoller) does qui te a passable impersonation in the first half of a middle-aged Hampstead hippie intellectual. This, though, is before she's shackled by male authority to the rotting corpse of the man she brained when he responded to her disingenuous invitation to have sex. That would make anyone go down-market.

It's a world where there's a surprising absence of nuns and monks, especially given the black comedy Barker derives from imagining the setting up of alternative churches like the Holy Congregation of the Wise Womb.

The Wrestling School performs the piece with the sort of blistering, darkly larky playing that Barker's idiom requires, and James Clyde as Stucley is quite excellent as he shows you a man at the end of his philosophical tether. Mouth agape and knees buckling with incredulity at the ways of the universe, he tries to keep his end up by volleys of demonic sarcasm delivered in a voice that reminds you of the younger Steptoe. It's a performance of top-gear tragi-comedy that's not to be missed.

A shame that the play is funny in ways you sometimes feel Barker has failed to predict. His dialogue is an actor-gratifying mix of the operatic and the demotic, the highbrow and the offhand, but it's death to the unruly reverberations of the English language. After all, who but Barker could have a lesbian, inveighing against sex with men, advocate that: "You do not lie down to the burden, you toss it off," and not hear the faint patterings of a smutty joke?

n Tour details: 081-442 4229

Comments