Theatre can be so much more than just an audience sitting in front of a stage watching a bunch of actors tell a story from A-Z. Playwright Howard Barker is a firm believer in this premise and at the Arcola Theatre there is an opportunity to see how two of his works fit into this.
First of all we had the London premiere of The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo. It was pretty obvious this was not going to be a run of the mill production when we were given a headset and told that a lot of the show was going to be taken place in the dark and there was a notice on the wall telling the audience how to summon assistance should they feel uncomfortable. The ‘stage’ area was marked out by bright lights pointing into the audience. In the gloom behind the lights it was possible to make out a young woman wearing a wedding dress and sitting perfectly still. The lights went down and the theatre was plunged into absolute darkness. Deprived of vision, the only sense to rely on was hearing and this is where the headphones really came into play superbly providing what is described as a 3D audio experience as we joined Groom Isonzo (the voice of Nicholas Le Provost) a blind centenarian, and his bride Tenna (Emily Loomes), also blind and 83 years Isonzo’s junior. It is the day of their wedding and over the course of the next hour, the two of them move and talk as they establish their relationship together. I have to say that The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo is not the easiest performance to go through. The loss of sight has a really profound effect on the theatrical experience. The headphones worked amazingly well in this respect with the sounds moving the actors around the theatre – even at one point having the uncomfortable feeling of Isonzo being virtually on my shoulder. Both actors delivered well, relying on their voices to bring emotion to their performance.
Unfortunately, for me, there were a couple of things that really didn’t feel right. For example, I thought the idea was to experience the world of Isonzo and Tenna, but in fact there was a third voice (Liam Smith) reading stage instructions and, in some respects removing the need for imagination for the audience. If I’m honest I also thought that the story was a bit too long and after a while, the darkness stopped being part of the experience and just became an irritant. Ultimately, I think the idea of sensory deprivation worked pretty well for a while and the play itself would be quite interesting to see if performed as a regular play, I’m afraid The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo didn’t quite work for me.
After the interval, we were back for the second part of the programme, Judith: A Parting From The Body. On the eve of a major battle, General Holofernes (Liam Smith) is contemplating what tomorrow will bring and particularly focussing his mind on death when he is interrupted by visitors in the shape of Judith (Catherine Cusack) and her servant (Kristin Hutchinson). Although coming from the enemy, Judith has been brought by the servant as a distraction to the General but he does not want her in that way. Instead, Holofernes wants to talk. Luckily, he has found an ideal conversational partner with Judith who is able to match the intellectual and verbal dexterity of the General. Having said that, The Servant is very canny in her own way and gives the audience an extremely interesting, and quite possibly accurate, insight into the signs that tell you if a war is going well or badly. As the three of them interact, truths and lies are told by all and eventually the real purpose of Judith’s visit is revealed, and although Holofernes has been aware of the truth since the start, the revelation ends up changing the relationships between all three of them forever.
Judith A Parting From The Body starts off as a fairly standard story that soon changes tack and becomes something more convoluted and not that easy to fully comprehend. The talented trio of actors work very well together and deliver a first rate, if slightly odd, performance that establishes their characters quite well. Unfortunately, for me, once more this play didn’t really work and I think this is down to the wording more than anything else. I have re-read both plays today and based on this I can say that I have real difficulty in connecting with Howard Barker’s writing style. It is probably me as Barker is a well-known writer, but I just couldn’t seem to establish a connection between us. Having said that, both productions were well staged. Director Robyn Winfield-Smith has done very well in putting the two shows together and while, not really for me, I am glad I got the chance to try something a little different with this interesting production.
Review by Terry Eastham
The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo & Judith: A Parting From The Body
Love, truth, sex and war collide in this exhilarating double bill by Howard Barker, “England’s greatest living dramatist” (The Times).
First, the London premiere of Barker’s dark comedy The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo. Isonzo is blind, witty and 100 years old; Tenna is blind, beautiful and just 17. On the day of their wedding a battle of wits commences in which bride and groom discover the other is far more of a match than they had bargained for… Nicholas Le Prevost (The Rivals, Man and Superman) voices Isonzo as power-play abounds in Barker’s fearlessly imaginative drama. This ground-breaking staging, set in a world of mysterious sound and mischievous light, heightens the senses with a 3D audio experience transmitted through over-ear headsets.
Then, Catherine Cusack (Bingo, All That Fall) takes on the title role in a timely revival of Barker’s war masterpiece, Judith: A Parting From The Body. On the night before battle, Judith enters the enemy camp to kill the Assyrian general, Holofernes. Her land is at stake – but what of her heart and mind? In his radical reimagining of a legend, Barker lays bare the complex sacrifices of human beings at war.
See both plays in one thrilling production directed by Robyn Winfield-Smith, whose UK premiere of Barker’s Lot and His God was nominated for multiple Off West End awards.
Directed by Robyn Winfield-Smith
Designer Rosanna Vize
Sound Designer Iain Armstrong
Musical Director Gregory Batsleer
Movement Director Lawrence Carmichael
Producer Rosalyn Newbery
Photography Nick Rutter
Cast: Catherine Cusack, Kristin Hutchinson, Nicholas Le Prevost (voice), Emily Loomes and Liam Smith
November 25th to December 19th 2015