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Howard Barker Double Bill review at Arcola Theatre, London – ‘exhilarating and provoking’

Kristin Hutchinson, Catherine Cusack and Liam Smith in Howard Baker's Judith: A Parting from the Body at the Arcola Theatre. Photo: Nick Rutter
Kristin Hutchinson, Catherine Cusack and Liam Smith in Howard Baker's Judith: A Parting from the Body at the Arcola Theatre. Photo: Nick Rutter
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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.

Verdict
An insightful, technically inventive staging that breathes humanity and humour into a double bill of plays by one of the UK's most uncompromising writers
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