In Scotland, Howard Barker plays are like proverbial buses. You wait ages for one, then two come along in quick succession. However, where Theatre in Action’s brave but flawed Judith gave us a tantalising reminder of the playwright’s skill, Kenny Ireland’s production of Victory for the Lyceum gives us the full measure of Barker’s brilliance.
Combining the sharp historical observation of Caryl Churchill with the rich vulgarity of Harold Pinter, Victory is an exceptional piece of political drama. Casting aside the tedious gentility with which we typically approach our history, the piece shows the Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660 as an event which was entirely red in tooth and claw. As ever with Barker, the most stunning element is the language. The sacred and the profane, the high-minded and the obscene, the brutal and the clinically hilarious are interwoven with rare theatrical craft.
Mary Bradshaw, wife of the regicidist judge John Bradshaw, scours London looking for the much discussed “bits” of her husband’s exhumed body. As she does so, a young Puritan’s proclamation of her “envy” of “the children of grocers” is one of many clever cross-references to the Thatcherite Eighties in which the play was written.
The obscene skittles match, in which Charles and his slavering courtiers knock Bradshaw’s severed head from its spike, is testimony to Barker’s capacity for power in dramatic action as well as language. Hayden Griffin’s appropriately austere set plays host to a universally superb cast. Kathryn Howden, as Bradshaw’s widow, and Bob Barrett, as the poisonous King, excel themselves, but every actor seems to intuitively grasp Barker’s meaning.
All of which demands bouquets for director Ireland. This is the finest Lyceum production for many years: a chaotic, intelligent, fascinating triumph.
This review was originally published in Scotland on Sunday on 12 May 2002
© Mark Brown