Knowledge and a Girl

It is not often that Howard Barker’s plays are produced in Britain (he is far more popular in Europe and America) in spite of his prodigious output and well-known name. Indeed, if you missed Blok/Eko at the Exeter Northcott (2011) or Scenes from an Execution at the National in London (2012) then this may well be the first opportunity for a while to see one of his works. Remarkably this is Knowledge and a Girl’s British première despite being published twelve years ago.

I encourage you to see it, wonder why Barker’s work is seemingly marginalised, and, to paraphrase some of the luxuriantly rich poetry, free it from the jail of its own beauty.

The company members from Kingston University have taken on a challenge with this play which is so typically rich in ambiguity, symbolism and metaphor and, in many ways, rise to it. The characters are well-drawn with a broad variety of social statuses immediately discernible through careful physicality. Zoey Barnes as the Queen in this twisted Little Snow White gives a commanding performance with her expressive face belying the true feelings behind her poetic words. She manages to convey an outward sexuality while maintaining the sense of deep insecurity which, we feel, will inevitably be justified.

Though faced with the inherent limitations of performing at a Fringe Festival, director James Reynolds has ensured that there is vestige enough of Barker’s aesthetics to maintain a coherent reading of the symbolic reds, whites and blacks which permeate and of the recurring central motif of shoes which finds its endpoint in the violent and torturous climax. It is testimony to the ensemble that this particular moment is so keenly felt by us in the audience – we completely buy in to the Queen’s fear and almost supernatural courage which she displays.

There is so much offered by this production that it, as with any Barker play, defies a singular reading or shared response. The challenge is to absorb the multiplicity of broken mirrors, fragments and overlaps, and shifts in character and to form some kind of unique meaning. Maturely this production does not feel as though it has had a directorial ‘meaning’ forced upon it; it retains the play’s status as a piece of art rather than of anything attempting to gain ‘relevance’ and in so doing makes individual performances secondary to the piece itself which is to its utmost credit. Admittedly, the strength of several performers is not quite matched by others in the cast - a fuller and more consistent absorption of character across the board would elevate this piece to the next level.

At times you may laugh, you may be shocked, you will highly likely be a little confused. But that’s ok. This is theatre of a different kind and does take some getting used to. The audience for this performance was small – I encourage you to see it, wonder why Barker’s work is seemingly marginalised, and, to paraphrase some of the luxuriantly rich poetry, free it from the jail of its own beauty.

Reviews by Joshua Clarke


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The Blurb

Howard Barker twists Grimm's Little Snow White into a spiky fable. 'I sleep with seven men,' she says. There are no innocent maidens or wicked stepmothers here, only women seeking enlightenment through erotic transgression. Barker delves into the intricacies of sexual maturity, explodes contemporary obsessions with youthfulness, and exposes how women are punished for a visible sexuality. But there's no social realism here – this is a truly Grimm world of mirrors, where the Queen's punishment is taken to the fairytale extreme, where the cost of desire and its knowledge is paid in blood. UK premiere.