Victory by Howard Barker
Directed by Amelia Nicholson
Reviewer: Honour Bayes
Howard Barker’s play Victory is a beautifully muscular feast and this production at The Arcola Theatre serves it up with great panache offering 3 hours of breath taking, titillating, crudely salacious and heart breaking theatre.
Set in Restoration England as the reign of the Puritan is at an end and the ‘Merry Monarch’ Charles II is flourishing under debauched bedcovers, Victory follows the actions and reactions of a cross section of the players within this tumultuous time. After a time of great civil war and action, now is the time for reaction and one must be able to roll with the punches to survive. Infamous Puritan Judge John Bradshaw’s widow crawls and sleeps her way to the top, the slightly bumbling machinations of the new Governor of the Bank of England and his board sit uncomfortably with Charles’ God given ‘Absolute Monarchy’ and a ballsy and bawdy cavalier falls in love with a hard Puritan woman.
Into this topsy tervy existence we are presented with idealists and realists. Ball, Matthew Kelly’s ardent, crude, bombastic cavalier and Karl Theobald’s cowardly Puritan servant Scrope passionately believed in their cause and cannot be turned from their conviction even in a world that welcomes neither of them anymore. The widow Bradshaw and Charles II cleverly understand the need for resourceful chameleon politics and although they are at the opposite end of the spectrum, they survive by acquiescing when they need to even if they never lose their bite when challenged. Ditch pity, ditch fuss and get on with it Barker seems to be saying.
Director Amelia Nicholson dives straight into this densely brilliant material and emerges with strong performances from all her cast within a structured, hexagon staging which highlights the intricacies of their ensemble playing. Out of this cohesive ensemble particular note should be made of Nicholas Rowe as Charles II who tenderly peels away the layers of this boorish monarch to the painfully vulnerable underclothes beneath.
Matthew Kelly continues to forge a strong acting career for himself with a powerful performance which if at times is all encompassing loud and crude at others reveals the depths of feeling that his Ball is capable of. His innocent bravado brings to mind the buffoonery of Shakespeare’s Bottom and this is not an isolated similarity with Geraldine James’ performance echoing Lady Macbeth in its intense rejection of weakly female traits whilst retaining a womanly sexuality. A force of nature, James’ Bradshaw is a strong, resourceful and hard woman who will stop at nothing to get what she wants, but her compassion and dry wit draw out an understanding and admiration from the audience which stays with her throughout this epic. A loving mother, she cares passionately but does not suffer fools gladly and although she may have ‘broken myself into pieces to do this’ it seems she is rising a stronger woman from the ashes for it.
Fracoise Ogier’s mix of contemporary and modern sound design perfectly mirrors Barker’s intermingling of Restoration pomp and modern plain talking humour and the costumes and wigs are of a West End quality.
Victory is an outstanding play – it is as though Barker is channelling Shakespeare himself in this epic, witty, moving, meaty story which keeps its audience entranced for 3 long hours in a way many shorter and thinner plays cannot even dream of doing today. Geraldine James towers as the resourceful Bradshaw and is supported by an indomitable cast of ensemble players who will make you laugh out loud one moment and want to cry the next. For one night sense and sensibility come together in a perfectly crafted and deliciously moist explosion of theatre at its very best. A rare and rich treat – Victory is an absolute must see.
Photo: Tristram Kenton
Victory runs at the Arcola Theatre until Saturday 4th April 2009