Writter/Director: Howard Barker
Reviewer: Honour Bayes
Corrugated iron, an industrial rumble and a half naked woman in a Holly Golightly hat traversing the stage in slow motion; so begins Howard Barker’s Found in the Ground at the Riverside Studios. A blend of theatre, opera and performance art, this undoubtedly powerful piece is offering itself up squarely to be sacrificed on the alter of high art.
It is hard to pin down Barker’s surreal vision with a gnarled oak of a father in a home, his sexually predatory and contemptuous 1950’s nurses, a mass murdering clown and a crippled librarian who burns books, being just a few of the nefarious characters that populate this strange new world. If there are any through lines they would seem to be mass murder, sexuality and death; with a strong whiff of the Second World War permeating all, not least in the form of Hitler, who makes an appearance towards the end in a bizarrely charming fashion.
Whilst structurally echoing the existentialism of Jean Paul Sartre and the biting brilliance of Harold Pinter, Barker’s voice is very much his own as he cascades between short and abstract repetition into poetic and lyrically driven soliloquies in an environment, which though beautiful, is an infinitely disturbing vision of Pandora’s box. Barking dogs, the whoosh of flames, skin, finger food, blood and piss all mingle, with the body viciously tethering Barker’s spiritual musings to the earth.
Barker’s language is some of the most visceral on the British stage and this piece is no exception with a constant war seeming to rage between intellect and primal physical urges. The characters (if that is what these isolated Hopper-esque individuals can be called) spit their words around their mouths as though contaminating each other with the fluid; their bodies at once undulating and rigid evoking a sense of both post and pre orgasm. They are not hell creatures but humans whose experiences, though heightened, are identical to our own. Because for all its Castellucian grandeur and intimidating aesthetic, Found in the Ground feels very human and bizarrely hopeful, centered as it is around the flesh and blood casing that encages us all.
Barker the director has gut wrenchingly choreographed his cast into dizzyingly slick stage pictures, whilst pulling performances from them which elegantly seem to teeter on the edge of meltdown. This universally superb cast’s sacrifice is evident for all to see.
It is true that this all powerful writer/director holds us in his auteur like grip for far too long and the question of objective editing is sometimes a worry as it always is with Barker’s autonomous Wrestling School. But love it or hate it, it is undeniable that this piece will leave an indelible stain on both one’s body and mind.
Runs until Sat 10th Oct