A Powerful Alternative
Through its latest collaboration with the Tron Theatre, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland is staging two major works by acclaimed dramatist Howard Barker, writes Mark Brown
Howard Barker is simultaneously one of the most revered and, in his native England at least, most neglected of contemporary dramatists. The prolific author of such outstanding plays as The Europeans and The Castle, his highly poetic, often deeply morally ambiguous plays have attracted the almost universal hostility of the English critical establishment and the respect of some of the finest actors and theatre directors.
Although he is routinely denounced by most of the London critics, Barker can count such great actors as Ian McDiarmid, Gary Oldman, Fiona Shaw and Juliet Stevenson among his admirers. Dominic Hill, the highly regarded director of Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre, describes him as “arguably our greatest living dramatist.”
Hugh Hodgart – long time director, acting teacher and current Dean of Drama and Dance at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow – is in no doubt where he stands on the question of Barker’s greatness. Since 1986, when he directed Victory (Barker’s great play set during the Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660) for the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (as the RCS then was), Hodgart has overseen the production of no fewer than 14 Barkers, 12 of which he has directed himself.
From Thursday to Saturday of this coming week, Glasgow’s Tron Theatre plays host to final year acting students from the RCS in the 13th and 14th of those productions. Hodgart will direct Victory for the first time in 27 years, whilst former Citizens Theatre co-director Guy Hollands will stage the extraordinary series of theatrical vignettes known as The Possibilities.
For Hodgart, as a director and teacher, presenting student actors with a Barker play is rather like offering them a drama by Shakespeare. “Barker is a poet and a historian and that’s expressed through his writing. You have to approach the work rather like you’d approach Shakespeare. There are rhythms and tunes there. Once you start to value the language, you find that the action is encoded in the words.
“The actors find that they really have to work with Barker”, he continues. “There’s nowhere to hide and you can’t make easy assumptions about what motivates characters and about the meanings of things.”
Hodgart disagrees with those who suggest that Barker’s theatre is too intellectual or wilfully obscure. “Nothing could be further from the truth. The plays are incredibly visceral, emotional and mythic.”
Barker should be considered alongside the very greatest dramatists, the director believes. He cites the political ambiguities in Victory as an example of Barker’s dramatic power. “In this play, the poet Milton says of revolution, ‘when the war is won, wage war on the victors.’ It’s an absolutely terrifying comment on the unending nature of the human struggle.
“It’s like Chekhov”, Hodgart suggests. “He absolutely refused to plough the straightforward, liberal humanist, anti-Czarist furrow. He was looking at life in a much broader, more problematic way. That’s exactly what Barker’s doing, too.”
Barker’s theatre stands, says the director, against “the dead hand of Hollywood realism. Something has happened in the last 100 years that has made us fearful of drama which is poetic, ambiguous and metaphorical.” With its latest productions, the Conservatoire is offering audiences a powerful alternative to the realism of most cinema and TV drama: a theatre which, in the words of Barker himself, “restores poetry to speech.”
Victory and The Possibilities play at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, May 30 to June 1. For tickets and information, visit: www.tron.co.uk. Mark Brown will chair a panel discussion with Hugh Hodgart and other members of the company following the matinee performance of Victory on Saturday, June 1.
This preview was originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 26, 2013
© Mark Brown