Howard Barker Double Bill review at Arcola Theatre, London – ‘exhilarating and provoking’
Howard Barker's work is demanding. Its verbosity isn't supposed to be easy and sometimes it tips over into self-regard. But, as demonstrated by this confident revival of two of his short works, The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo (its London premiere) and Judith: A Parting from the Body, it can be exhilarating and provoking.
The Arcola has previously staged Barker's Scenes from an Execution and director Robyn Winfield-Smith has an acclaimed production of Lot and His God on her CV. Here, she plunges us into darkness for Isonzo, using 3D audio headphones to capture the power-play between the elderly, blind Isonzo (distinctively voiced by Nicholas Le Prevost) and his blind, 17-year-old bride, Tenna (Emily Loomes).
It's highly effective, opening up an ever-shifting landscape in our heads, as war, sex and deferred desire mingle, with only lighting designer Christopher Nairne's teasingly limited, retina-blazing flashes of a ghostly Loomes to anchor us. This is gothic romance rewired as an exploration of subjectivity, staged to its fullest here.
Isonzo's allusions to war (even the title blackly puns on a First World War battle) become a knotty noose in Barker's better-known (and Bible-inspired) Judith: A Parting of the Body. As the titular widow sent to kill Liam Smith's despotic general, Holofernes, Catherine Cusack brings real conflict to Barker's relentless dissection of the anatomy of violence.