Howard Barker Double Bill

This double bill of Howard Barker’s work features the London premiere of The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo alongside a revival of Judith: A Parting from the Body, both directed by Robyn Winfield-Smith. The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo follows the conversation between Isonzo, a ‘blind, witty and roguishly mischievous’ 100 year old man, and his twelfth wife Tenna, a ‘blind, beautiful and wise’ woman beyond her seventeen years. Judith: A Parting from the Body on the other hand is based on the mythic tale of Judith and Holofernes, but this story is of an Israeli widow who infiltrates the enemy’s camp in order to kill the Assyrian general and save her country from invasion and inevitable brutal destruction.

There are some very interesting ideas employed – particularly in Rosanna Vize’s decision to set The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo in pitch black.

With work such as The Castle to his name, Barker sets very high expectations or at least hopes with any new work he releases. Unfortunately these expectations are not met. There are some very interesting ideas employed – particularly in Rosanna Vize’s decision to set The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo in pitch black. However this technique is never fully realised due to the headphones that the audience use to listen to the show have small but visible green lights, meaning one is constantly distracted by their fellow audience members, and the concept of complete darkness is not in fact ever achieved.

Such a simple problem like having headphones that are not functioning can be seriously damaging to a production that relies on its technology, and when in a darkened theatre, it’s very difficult to work out how to turn them back on. This cost me the first ten minutes of the dialogue. Little technical issues such as these are easily overlooked but are essential in these circumstances.

Incorporating headphones may have been a way of enhancing the feeling of otherworldliness towards this place of darkness. It may have been to symbolise a more ongoing conversation or story from a different time, however unfortunately it served to make one feel a bit like they were listening to a radio play. Because the dialogue is pre-recorded the immediacy of the theatrical experience is to a large degree lost. Some of the lines felt ill-timed, as though they’d been through an editing suite and cut together without matching appropriately. It is a great attempt and almost achieves its aims, but due to a few problems acts to severely detract from the show.

The technique of being in pitch black is interesting, yet the use of occasional lighting to highlight an object or person could have been used more, or at more relevant points. It felt they were simply chosen for dramatic effect rather than any logic, which is fair enough but for pure drama’s sake more lighting would have benefited the production.

Judith: A Parting from the Body suffered more from the actors having not settled into their roles at such an early point in their run. The exception is Kristin Hutchinson as the Servant. She is constantly connected, funny and truthful in her portrayal of the role. The direction does give the feel of an overly ‘staged’ play however. There is very little that is interesting or ground breaking in the physical score of the actors, though the set design does provide a good backdrop to the action. One hopes that further down the production, the cast will finally fit into their roles, but at this point it does feel a touch disconnected, whether this is a result from the cast or the director’s choices.

Overall though there were some interesting avenues taken with these pieces, as a whole work they did not live up to the high expectations that are raised by Barker’s reputation.

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The Blurb

Receiving its London premiere in the centennial year of the first battle of the Isonzo in WWI, The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo is a battle of wits played out between the aged Isonzo and his youthful bride, Tenna. Isonzo, blind, witty and roguishly mischievous, is 100, and has outlived 11 wives. Tenna, blind, beautiful and wise beyond her years, is 17, and has never been married before. And so commences the twelfth 'battle' of Isonzo, set within a sightless world on the day of their wedding, in which bride and groom each discover that the other is far more of a match than they had bargained for. Isonzo, a fearlessly imaginative and controversial one-act play, is the motivating force behind an access programme including the Arcola’s first ever touch tour and audio described theatre performance, along with participatory events reaching out to people with little or no experience of theatre, or who may face obstacles in accessing theatre opportunities.

Judith: A Parting from the Body radically reimagines the mythic tale of Judith and Holofernes with searing political topicality in the wake of the ongoing violence and instability in the middle east. Judith, an Israeli widow, infiltrates the enemy camp alongside her apparently back-chatting Servant to seduce and kill the Assyrian general, Holofernes, and save her country from invasion. But nothing is as it seems, and soon we become entangled in a gripping double-seduction: a web of truth and lies between a man who has chosen murder, and a woman who has chosen love, culminating in the transformation of Judith into the very thing she has set out to destroy.

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