Oh, the beauty and power of playwright/poet Howard Barker’s text, and how well he understands the treacherous seduction of language. And let’s not forget his use of monosyllabic words, tip, push, shove, chuck, barge, that reverberate with alluring effect in Barker’s In the Depths of Dead Love, a play previously performed as a radio drama and now adapted for the stage at The Print Room theatre in Notting Hill.
Set in ancient China, which has little bearing on the plot – this is a story easily told without reference to time and place, a retro-futuristic tale unloosed from earthly surround or distant planet.
I mention this because there were a group of demonstrators outside the theatre last night, protesting that no East-Asian actors were cast in any of the parts. I suggest Barker revisits the setting as ‘somewhere in the ancient world‘ to end the accusations of ‘racism’ as this is an allegorical tale that could easily avoid such a heated backlash. However, free tickets to the demonstrators would be a sensible offer so they can view the play and then determine if it is racist.
In the Depths of Dead Love tells the tale of Chin (James Clyde) an exiled poet in China who ekes out a living as a self-professed Master of the Bottomless Well, a property he rents that serves as a jumping-in point for would-be suicides. Chin charges a fee for locals wishing to take the final leap but doubles it for those who approach the well’s ominous circumference and then back off. And like any misanthropic sorcerer, Chin offers a discount for students and those who successfully complete the act. It’s a straightforward business enterprise, with fees and discounts clearly posted, until a married couple approaches him and puncture his stance of impartiality.
It is the wife, Lady Hasi (Stella Gonet), who wishes to end her life but hesitates at the final moment. Her husband, Lord Ghang (William Chubb) suggests to Chin that it is his duty to help Lady Hasi to complete her mission. Lord Ghang suggests that Chin ‘shove her’ into the bottomless well. Chin ponders over Lord Ghang’s motives, surely he must hate his wife if he wishes her a successful suicide. But Lady Hasi is not opposed to Chin’s participation. She pleads with Chin to ‘push her’ into the well. Even Chin’s faithful housekeeper, Mrs Hu (Jane Bertish) agrees that his role in helping Lady Hasi is essential. She suggests that Chin ‘tip her’ into the well. Chin finds the proposal easier if he were to ‘topple her in’ but then he’d have to relinquish the crass beauty of monosyllabism.
As much as In the Depths of Dead Love is steeped in allegory and poetic licence, it also has a scientific component, one that relates the properties of the Bottomless Well to the theory of Black Holes. Although Chin never mentions Black Holes, his description of the Bottomless Well brought to mind the opposing theories of what happens if someone were to ‘slip into’ a Black Hole. The supposition is that there are two realities, one from the observer’s point of view – you’d be burnt to ash immediately – the other, that the person who fell in would find herself living in an alternate reality. Just like the theories about what happens to us after death.
In the Depths of Dead Love is a play that could easily slip into tedium if it were not for the wild and powerful talents of James Clyde. It must be said that his performance is crucial to the piece. But all the actors inhabit their characters beautifully as they contemplate the absurdity that is ‘life’.
High accolades for Director Gerrard McArthur, his love of Barker’s text shines through; Justin Nardella for such a trance-like set design; Lighting Designer Adrian Sandvaer, I can still see the glow emanating from the well; Sound Designer Ed Lewis, for the creak of the gate – all creatives with clarity and imagination to ensure the success of this highly inventive piece. In the Depths of Dead Love, not to be missed.
Review by Loretta Monaco
Set in ancient China, In the Depths of Dead Love tells of a poet exiled from the Imperial Court & the favour of the Emperor, who scrapes a living by renting his peculiar property – a bottomless well – to aspiring suicides. Among these is a married couple who exert an appalling influence over him. Told through Barker’s celebrated exquisite language and affecting humour, In the Depths of Dead Love is the witty and poignant tale of a man facing an impossible dilemma.
Howard Barker returns to the Print Room following Lot and His God in 2012. Barker is an internationally renowned dramatist, whose first plays were performed at the Royal Court and by the Royal Shakespeare Company. His theatre is characterised by its poetic, non-naturalistic form and inhabits worlds of contradiction, suffering and sexual passion. Barker is also a poet and theorist of theatre, whose Theatre of Catastrophe defines a new form of tragedy for our times.
In the Depths of Dead Love
Directed by Gerrard McArthur
Until Saturday, 11 February 2017