Howard Barker is looking startled. “I’m amazed, why would you leave?” I have just told him about the reports of early walk-outs in response to his claim that his play Scenes from an Execution is an easy ride. He looks genuinely baffled, and says: “It’s a pretty easy play to get on board with, it doesn’t give you a headache”.
Many people would disagree with him but then that is the story of Barker’s life. A tragedian in a world where comedy reigns, he is a lone figure. Still he casts a daunting shadow across the theatrical landscape with early productions at the RSC and Royal Court, plays such as Scenes from an Execution and Victory – which received a swaggering Arcola production starring Matthew Kelly in 2009 – and the formation of his own company The Wrestling School, created to carry out his vision of the ‘theatre of catastrophe’. “I believe in poetic discourse, in the value of speech in a non-naturalistic way, it’s speculative… I’m not interested in observed reality.”
It is this non-humanist element that he feels is responsible for his break with the main theatres and he is sure Scenes from an Execution will be the last one to be staged at the National “Scenes is the one they can get, so you might think they’d go ‘That was a success so we’ll go on to… what?’ Because then the National has a problem.”
He is comfortable with this prospect, wearing his outsider role like a badge of honour against what he sees as a utilitarian regime. “English society will look at it and say ‘what’s the use of that play, what does that play do?’. But it doesn’t do anything for you. What do you go the theatre for – a massage? It’s supposed to give you trouble.”
Anyone who’s ever jumped through arts council hoops will share his frustration at this emphasis on targets, though it’s less likely they’ll agree with his fervent belief that the theatre should be an ordeal. Not surprisingly the arts council didn’t agree either, with The Wrestling School losing its funding in 2007.
I’m not a Christian, it’s just a matter of narratives. A narrative that has been built into the culture for as long as these ones have obviously has a kind of extra authority, which is interesting to interrogate.
Now that its private funding has also fallen through Barker is left to watch other people’s productions of his work. Typically defying expectation, it’s a prospect this auteur is sanguine about, which is just as well with Lot and His God getting its UK premiere at The Print Room this month, alongside an exhibition of his paintings.
Lot and His God sees Barker return to the Bible as a source. “I’ve often taken important classical, biblical or literary stories and interrogated them. I have tried to reinvigorate Lot by interpreting it differently.”
Once again avoiding the charges of sensationalism that have dogged him throughout his career, Barker has focused on the moment when Lot and his wife are warned by an angel to leave Sodom and not the tales of rape and incest that muddy this book of Genesis. “In this version neither of them wants to go [in the original, Lot is already out of the door]. It’s about not conceding to God’s will and then the angel himself is corrupted by the milieu he’s in.”
With its eschewing of pleasure, its tales of violence, power, travails and punishment the Old Testament seems the perfect fit for Barker’s epic tragedies. But when I quote the Telegraph’s Charles Spencer’s thought that he is “like some unheeded Old Testament prophet of British theatre” he bristles. “What does that mean?” he asks, “I’m not a Christian, it’s just a matter of narratives. A narrative that has been built into the culture for as long as these ones have obviously has a kind of extra authority, which is interesting to interrogate.”
Perhaps it is the fact that Spencer has tried to pigeonhole a man who is a natural contrarian – he speaks of the importance of both ensembles and autonomy all in one breath – or perhaps it is the “unheeded” part that rankles.
As the industry bemoans a lack of strong female parts here is a playwright who historically writes leading roles for women and has written three in the past year alone. While contemporary female writers state they are not obligated to write about their sex, Barker positively relishes the prospect: “I like working with women and I’m interested in what it is to be a woman. But it’s also the fact that… there are a lot of very good actresses who are doing nothing much, because there’s nothing for them to play.”
Barker has previously posited that it was Fiona Shaw who pushed for the role of Galactia and got Scenes from an Execution on at the National because, as Mark Lawson put it: “It’s a stonking role for an actress.” In the wake of The Wrestling School I wonder if this is a way to get a platform, as when movies stars use their name to get a project made.
He’s less convinced it will work “These great actresses you know – Fiona [Shaw], Harriet [Walter] and Juliet [Stevenson] are they going to stick their necks out to play work like [The Wrestling School]? I put a challenge out to them… take eight weeks out of your schedule to work on a Howard Barker play – with him directing – and if it flops, which it almost certainly will in critical terms, then you go back to where you were. What’s the loss?”
Perhaps naively, I say I hope it works “Alright let’s have a £5 bet and we’ll meet in five years and see,” he says, seemingly cheerful in the knowledge that his loner status will remain intact. Unless of course – Fiona, Harriet, Juliet? Over to you.
Scenes from an Execution runs at the Lyttelton, National Theatre, London, until December 9.
Lot and His God runs until November 24 at the Print Room, London. Barker’s art exhibition, Mon Ami Watteau, runs alongside.
Read Honour Bayes’ Fringe Focus column at www.thestage.co.uk/columns/fringe-focus