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Encore Theatre Magazine
::Front Page::

:: Thursday, February 03, 2005 ::

Encore Revivals # 4
The Castle by Howard Barker

Harriet Walter as Skinner in Howard Barker's The Castle (RSC: The Pit, 1985, dir. Nick Hamm), photographer, Donald Cooper - taken from Charles Lamb's The Theatre of Howard Barker (2005)"There was no government ... does anyone remember ... there was none ... there was none ... there was none"

What would we have done without Howard Barker all these years to incite, offend, and inspire us? His longevity and prodigious output has been such that we risk taking him for advantage. No one writes like him; I dare even say that no one is his equal in sheer, unrelenting theatrical imagination. Churchill is more formally sophisticated; Kane managed without artistic compromise to connect with the mainstream more effectively; Pinter is more influential and important. But does any writer's language sit better in the mouths of actors, and sweep them across stages in the way that Barker's does?

With almost 100 plays to choose from, choosing a play worthy of revival is both child's play and impossible. We've gone back to 1985's The Castle, first performed at the RSC in their Barker at the Pit season, which also included Downchild and Crimes in Hot Countries. It was a crucial season for Barker, the first time he got consistently good reviews since he had abandoned the scabrous satire in which he'd specialised in the 1970s. The towering achievement of that season is The Castle.

We are in late medieval England and the crusaders, under the leadership of their knight, Stucley, have just returned from the Crusades. Expecting to be welcomed back by their faithful wives they are shocked to discover that in their absence their women have transformed the county into a vast lesbian commune. Witchcraft has replaced technology; common ownership has replaced private property; religion is a relic. The region is in thrall to the white witch, Skinner. The response of the soldiery is to reassert their authority by building an enormous castle, under the guidance of the captured Arab mathematician, Krak. With each blow struck against them in this new sex war, the men order the castle to be built bigger, thicker, stronger, its fortifications more elaborate, its defences more ingenious. When Skinner seduces and kills the builder of the Castle, she is tortured and sentenced to carry her victim's rotting body around with her (pictured).

This does not put an end to the strife and, led by Ann, the women of the village, newly impregnated by the returning males, commit suicide by jumping from the walls of the Castle. Furthermore, the presence of the Castle had produced defensive military building in the neighbouring counties; over the hill is the Fortress, far superior to the Castle. Krak has realised the failure of the Castle and becomes obsessed by the rival geometry of the cunt. Skinner meanwhile becomes an object of curious adoration and soon the men decide to throw in their lot with her, hastily rewriting the Bible again as a sentimentally feminist text and offering her the keys to the Castle. Skinner initially accepts but, feeling the thirst for vengeance flooding through her, rejects it. But the Castle has already begun to erode political memory; desperately she tries to retrieve the memory of their utopia without government, without leaders, without war.

Because the Castle gradually dominates everything. It overlooks everything and its presence affects the weather; Batter, Stucley's servant, fears the effect of its looming presence:

And when they throw open the shutters, where's the sky, they'll say, give us back our fucking sky, they will, won't they? All they'll clap eyes on is masonry and arrow slits, it will blot the old blue out and throw long shadows over them, always at the corner of their eye, kissing or clawing, even in bedrooms looking in, and drunken arses falling out of beer houses will search for vain for corners to piss in not overlooked.
For Batter it will become a kind of Big Brother, abolishing privacy, holding everyone and everything in its gaze. For Skinner, its effects will be even more insidious in its eradication of the lesbianfeminist paradise they have built for themselves. She tells her lover, Ann:

Every stone they raise is aimed at us. And things we have not dreamed of yet will come from it. Poems, love and gardening will be - and where you turn your eyes will be - and even the little middle of your heart which you think is your safe and actual self will be - transformed by it. I don't know how but even the way you plait your hair will be determined by it, and what we crop and even the colour of the babies.
I quote these speeches at length because they are just so remarkable. Not for the play - it's full of speeches as good and better - but we haven't had such language since the Jacobeans. It's beautiful, it's rich, it's demotic and it's moving, it's simply astonishing language. Barker sometimes gets marginalised as an eccentric genius, an undisciplined whirlwind of language, whose work badly needs a script editor. But here we have a careful piece of remarkable stagecraft. Batter's speech, placed in the context of the scene, is a still and haunting vision of the future. Skinner's witchwoman prediction seems obscure and mystical - yet much of what she predicts comes true as Ann falls in love with and becomes pregnant by the Palestinian Krak and rebraids her hair.

Ian McDiarmid as Stucley and Penny Downie as Ann in Howard Barker's The Castle (RSC: The Pit, 1985, dir. Nick Hamm), photographer, Donald Cooper - taken from Charles Lamb's The Theatre of Howard Barker (2005)Some see this as Barker's most explicitly political play. Barker has occasionally ironically referred to it as such himself. At the time it was certainly seen as a sideways comment on the arms race and the military-feminist debates taking place daily at Greenham Common air base. And, of course, in some ways it was: the end of the first act traces a cryptic history of military technology and the end of the play is pounded out by the sound jets streaking overhead; the text's engagement in contemporary feminist debates can partly be seen in its not altogether respectful citation of Ian McEwan's 1983 oratorio, Or Shall We Die, 'Shall there be womanly times or shall we die? Are there men unafraid of gentleness?'

One senses, though, that Barker is less interested in joining in this debate than in ratcheting up the conflict, stripping the last veils of politeness through which it was occasionally conducted, and revealing the beating throbs of desire that animate it. His own epigraph to the play is 'what is politics but the absence of desire?' and one feels that in this play he is raising politics only to abandon it decisively. He would never return to such evidently allegorical material again.

The premiere was at the RSC but in The Pit. This reduced the majestic scale of the Castle to a series of blackened ladders. The Wrestling School produced their own, rather unsatisfactory, production in 1995, which toured similarly cramped venues in Britain. But this is a play that demands the mechanisms of the National Theatre. The Olivier could raise a Castle with a scale to match that of Barker's conception. And this is not an obscure or audience-repelling play; it's hilariously funny ('Never saw a nun do that', 'Reg you have got a bag on your head', 'Don't draw cunt, I'm talking' etc.); its language, well you just have to experience it in a big theatre to discover that it works. It fills space. This language is enormous and full of the body. In our current era where Bezhti and Jerry Springer the Opera are pestered by the simple-minded religious, this would be a great retort, largely due to its astonishingly funny and daring I.iv., in which Stucley, smarting at his sexual rejection, instructs the priest to rewrite the Bible, 'reinstating' the references to Christ's penis which, he surmises, were omitted by 'neutered Bishops'. The Book he thus writes, The Gospel of the Christ Erect, provoked gasps from its unshockable metropolitan London audience in 1985 and would do again.

Last week, the National partly revealed its summer line-up. A play by Howard Brenton is long overdue (we have to save him from Spooks), and David Edgar is probably the man to offer journalistic commentary on the new rise of the far-right in Bradford and Oldham. But even Brenton - a great and neglected writer - is no match for Barker at his best, and The Castle is him at his very best. If Nick Hytner means what he says about the right to shock, here really is a play that demands revival.

The Castle is one of the great plays of our theatre: its poetry is crammed with questions, its story thrills with daring, it is a work of popular theatre, philosophy and holy fiction; it has the dirt of history in its veins, and it has blood in its mouth. Revive it!


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