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The Seduction of Almighty God by the Boy Priest Loftus in the Abbey of Calcetto, 1539
Riverside Studios, London

Andrew Haydon
13 December 2006

Howard Barker is a playwright who divides audiences. For nearly thirty years (not counting his initial period of naturalistic political satires) he has been creating dense, opaque, vast dramas with a wider scale of reference, setting and intent than any other playwright writing in the English language. Barkerís plays offer characters in often unclear historical or geographical setting, frequently without a clear narrative, and whose dialogue is always rich in argument, thought and language

Much though Barker claims not to deal in stories that the audience can understand, The Seduction of Almighty God... offers a pretty clear narrative: Loftus, a devout 17-year-old, arrives at an abbey which is being dismantled during the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. Only a tiny number of the monks remain, and these have all but abandoned monastic life in favour of sleeping with the local women and selling off their refectory for personal gain. Loftus is more idealistic, but also suffers from terrible fits, which appear to possess the power to give or take life. Through the course of the play we see him gain power at the abbey only to be ultimately destroyed by his appalling gifts.

This production is something of a departure from recent Wrestling School productions, since it is not directed by Barker himself, but by the French director Guillaume Dujardin. It is still designed by the theatre companyís favourite designer, Tomas Leipzig - albeit in one of his least characteristic designs for the company since his first commission in 1996 - the interior of the abbey is rendered as vast pillars and walls, all swaddled in swathes of thick plastic sheeting; chilly, minimalist, modern and oddly artistic - like some giant Christo & Jeanne-Claude work; managing to create the impression of a huge building without anything more solid than a few plastic sheets. It is a design concept which allows suggestion to work on the imagination, creating the impression of something far more tangible than a literal representation could have ever achieved.

The company of actors also contains far fewer of the usual Wrestling School suspects than recent outings for the company. This Ďnew broomí approach has its advantages; the company appears really to have dedicated time to finding their way into the script, rather than - as was in danger of becoming the case - slipping on a new costumes (often similar to their last), distributing the new set of characters, and settling into familiar patterns of movement and delivery.

Particularly excellent is Leander Deeny as the boy Loftus. As well as handling Barkerís dense script intelligently, Deeny also brings a brilliant sense of deadpan comic timing to the script. Where in the past Barkerís sense of humour has gone either unremarked or unnoticed - buried in rather more oblique acting styles - in The Seduction... there are moments where the dramatic action resembles nothing so much as a Pythonesque bedroom farce. None of this diminishes the more highbrow subjects examined.

Loftus is almost the perfect Barker hero: both morally serious and morally ambiguous. Barker is on record as having described the Reformation as the worst thing to have ever happened to British art, claiming it as the point at which British Art was forced irreversibly down the road of social function and utility. At the same time, Loftusís pitiless religious fundamentalism makes him a problematic hero for our times. One can see Barkerís admiration for his severe moral stance fighting alongside his disbelief that humanity possesses the ability to fight simple desire. This is classic Barker territory and a welcome return to form for the Wrestling School. Moreover, it is a great, if interestingly flawed, piece of theatre by any standard.

Run over.

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