Focusing on a seizure-prone adolescent priest and his fervent belief in his connection with God and set in the time of overwhelming cynicism and corruption of the English Reformation, Howard Barker’s new play is the next in the line of his Christianity-inspired parables. More concise than usual and thematically quite precise in its enquiry, the play conjures up a world without chairs, grey and vertical, albeit at times dangerously tilted.
French director Guillaume Dujardin brings a certain plasticity to this world through stage pictures featuring frequent instances of prostration, Birkenstock sandals and severe lighting states. The immensely watchable cast too features two of Barker’s former Francophone collaborators and a fine selection of British counterparts, headed by young Leander Deeny as the elevated prodigy. Predictably, the production’s strength rests on a Barkerian juxtaposition of the intellectual and the visceral within a bleached out, ascetic and abstracted frame. This is enhanced by Peter Bull’s evocative soundscape. However, Dujardin’s attention to detail occasionally loses sight of the bigger picture and often fails to pace the action to its maximum potential effect.
Belonging to a generation of drama students which worshipped Barker as the most misunderstood genius of the contemporary British theatre, I truly hoped that the year of his 60th birthday would be graced with more than just a few extra special radio play commissions. It is no surprise that it takes a French collaboration to deliver a new Wrestling School show, but one can’t help worrying that it is a sign of an ever-growing cultural gap. Which certainly makes it a matter of urgency to see this show.