Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Case Study No. 2001: Denmark

Found In The Ground by Howard Barker
Extracts from Found In The Ground by Howard Barker, The Wrestling School's 21st aniversary theatre production at Riverside Studios October 2009 London UK
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The Wrestling School
Found in the Ground
by Howard Barker

[various scenes from the play are shown, including a young male librarian (brown curly hair, glasses, grey shirt, black pants) speaking to a young woman]
DENMARK: But they're wholly redundant! And all this reciprocated passion for some ...
BURGTEATA: Yes yes, oh yes!
DENMARK: Fatuous condition of matrimony.
BURGTEATA: [pause] How well you know me ...
DENMARK: How well I know you? Yes.
BURGTEATA: It's uncanny! How old are you?
DENMARK: You know perfectly well--
BURGTEATA: How old, I said!
DENMARK: Nineteen.
[more scenes from the play are shown, then the screen fades to black]



Found In The Ground
Wrtten & Directed by Howard Barker

Found In The Ground is Howard Barker's most experimental and innovative play conceived for the stage.

A dying former Nuremberg judge consigns his priceless library to the bonfire. As he rejoices in this wilful barbarism, his delinquent daughter discovers a bizarre obsession and his executed victims appear in unexpected forms. His passionate desire to meet the arch criminal who evaded his prosecution is at last satisfied when Adolf Hitler arrives... to discuss painting.

A cast of 16 including a chorus of sadistic nurses and 3 snarling dogs created a surreal, startling and compelling kaleidoscope of images, ideas, movement and powerfully poetic language.

Howard Barker on "Found In The Ground"

We've had to wait a while to be able to do this play as its scale was beyond our resources until now. It is a play of images and echoes from the Hitler period to the more recent past. At the centre of it is an ex-Nuremberg judge whose contempt for his own culture compels him to destroy his priceless library. His librarian and his daughter struggle to make sense of these actions, moving from love to hatred and back again.

Found In The Ground is entirely impressionistic, with a cascading number of scenes, all related but not always consecutive. So it operates differently from all other plays of mine, by breaking down the narrative that has always been at the centre of theatre in my and nearly all dramatic text.

It is not a tragedy. The characters don't pass through the ordeal of their experiences, they react spontaneously, or carve out places for themselves in which to live. I would call this a play of landscape rather than identity.

Hitler makes an appearance towards the end of the play. Of course it is impossible to put Hitler on stage in any historical sense. But I didn't intend to do that. I take a fragment of him, entirely imaginary. He is a visitor to the place that he has (and the twentieth century has) created.

The production marks 21 years of The Wrestling School. In 1988 we were simply satisfied to be mounting a large play at all. Now it stands for something, an aesthetic which is controversial of course, but international in reputation. I couldn't have foreseen that. I couldn't have foreseen how many enemies we would make, nor how many friends. The Company's methods have developed, its aesthetic is refined, and I think its identity is now so distinctive I never think of it being in the theatre at all. It's somewhere else...



Found in the Ground by Howard Barker.
Directed by the author.
Set design: Tomas Leipzig.
Costume design: Billie Kaiser.
Lighting design: Helen Morley.
Sound design: Paula Sezno.
Dog automata maker: Keith Newstead.
With Vanessa Faye-Stanley (Macedonia), Gerrard McArthur (Toonelhuis), Suzy Cooper (Burgteata), Kyle Soller (Denmark), Nigel Hastings (Workman), Julia Tarnoky (Knox), Michael Vaughan (Lobe), Alan Cox (Hitler), and Georgie Alexander, Megan Hall, Charlotte More and Leah Whitaker (the Nurses).
Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission.
A Wrestling School production.
At Riverside Studios, Crisp Road, Hammersmith, London.
Reviewed at the 3 October performance.

Irony, that facile and usually unhelpful trickster, had me reading Edward Bond's The Hidden Plot the afternoon before I saw Howard Barker's Found at the Ground, the Wrestling School's 21st production, this past weekend. In "Language," one of the early essays in the book, Bond takes up the idea of justice. "Theatre has only one subject," Bond writes: "justice. Our minds are the site of imagination because we listen as well as speak. Imagination creates our world. It is as if each of us were a sculptor who created an image out of the raw stone of the world. The image is either just or corrupt. Theatres are the site of public imagination where the distinction between speaking and listening is dissolved. Neither love nor religion can do that. Yet it is essential to our shared humanity, for how else shall we learn to live justly? But now our alchemy corrupts our imagination, and if it succeeds in this we will lose our human language. No previous culture has achieved that extreme of nihilism."

Ironic because the idea of justice in the post-Auschwitz post-Hiroshima world is precisely the subject of Found in the Ground, a play which whispers, in contradistinction to Bond, that "the image is neither just nor corrupt," renouncing such moral definitions in a considered musical meditation of imagination and justice. And it is a multidimensional image of considerable depth, one of Barker's "more 'musical' plays in which elements of expressionism and surrealism contribute to linguistically and pictorially poetic forms," as David Ian Rabey defined one stream of Barker's work in his recent book on the dramatist.

A landscape-with-figures play like Found in the Ground doesn't offer a plot or narrative as such, but a situation to be excavated. In this case, the situation is centered on Toonelhuis (Gerrard McArthur), a judge at Nuremburg now retired to some distant retreat and cared for (if these are the words for such ambivalent casual dismissal) by his intensely loyal and ancient servant Lobe (the caustically disdainful Michael Vaughan) and four bitterly uncaring nurses. He also retains a naive young librarian, Denmark (Kyle Soller), to oversee the burning of his large library, a burning that the idealist librarian despises. Toonelhuis' expansively sexual daughter Burgteata (Suzy Cooper) teases Denmark, who nonetheless remains impotent and is prone to sexual degradation. Meanwhile, in his memory, Toonelhuis is haunted by the spirits of the Nazi leaders whom he sentenced to death at Nuremburg, spirits personified by Knox ("the spirit of a war criminal," according to the text), who here is lithely and darkly performed by Julia Tarnoky in a bizarre black-and-white outfit and makeup: a nightmare Harlequin. Knox is finally able to summon Hitler (Alan Cox), a melancholic now given to disquisitions on art, continually fascinated by the spectacle of death.

Toonelhuis spends his last days on earth ingesting the remains of his, and of justice's, victims – mud and ashes now, as much mud and ashes as the remains of the Nazis' victims at Auschwitz or the atomic bomb's victims at Hiroshima, his fingers playing in the flesh of the corpses. He is as much a victim of the conflicting claims of justice as the three dogs that he keeps, vicious mechanical creatures that once served as fearsome guards (in the camps) and now as fearsome protectors (surrounding the judges) – and in this production they are marvellous mechanical creations by Keith Newstead. Their ominous barking constitutes one of the motifs of the play's soundscape; at the end of the play, as Lobe gently cuts their throats, they are released from the bizarre uses to which humankind has put them, as death releases Toonelhuis also from his tortured physical self-awareness.

But this is a 21st century play – "new writing," as Aleks Sierz might put it – and in the contemporary scenes the relationship of idealism to tragic history, and especially idealism that leads to such tragic history, forms much of the foreground to this landscape. Denmark may well be a Toonelhuis-in-training, which may explain his employment by the judge: an idealist who finds more significance in books than in body, as human justice finds more significance in law than in landscape; it was, after all, justice in the name of idealism that led the Nuremburg court to pass sentences of death on the Nazi war criminals. This idealism leads Denmark to toss himself on top of the pyre of burning books, sacrificing his body to his ideals; but again, irony, our facile and unhelpful trickster, makes this a failed suicide. It is his denial of desire, Hamletesque trepidation in the face of a proferred ecstasy, that leads to his pain: his sexual prostration between the legs of his female lovers, his degredation, is of his own making. In his naivete, Denmark stands in for 21st century culture, unwilling to absorb and accept its responsibility in tragic history and therefore quite ready to repeat its horrors once again, and willing to deny the fulfillment of the body's significance, condemning it to ashes and mud rather than life. (For it must be remembered that the Nazis, those promulgators of racial purity and a utopian Thousand Year Reich, were idealists too.)

This was the first time I've seen one of Barker's own productions. It was not surprising to find the extraordinary precision of his texts reflected in the precision of his scenography: this is a production with sharp, piercing edges that wound, from the metal teeth of the mechanical dogs to the clarity of the costume and set design (and long-time Wrestling School designers Billie Kaiser and Tomas Leipzig are joined for the first time by sound designer Paula Sezno, a graduate of the Sopron Academy of Theatre Arts; her "favourite sound sources are industrial processes, a taste she describes as 'pure nostalgia,'" her program biography says; her sounds, too, like Kaiser's exquisitely sensual dresses and Leipzig's uncompromisingly hard and cold sets and props, pierce the invisible scrim between performer and auditor. Needless to add, Helen Morley's light design sculpts the dark beautifully). It was surprising, however, to see just how ... well, the comic, for want of a better word, abuts the tragic in the stage production, for much of this is light and fast; the bitter dogs appeal in their toy-like qualities; Gerrard McArthur's Toonelhuis is particularly wry; and there's Alan Cox's Hitler, who seems uncomfortable in being called back from the dead in a nuanced and quiet performance; if anything, he is slightly embarrassed, and those who surround him treat him with a casual and amusing contempt (one of the Nurses thrusts an unneeded tray into his arms as she hurries out to catch a bus, leaving poor Hitler slightly bereft and comically burdened). He is only transfixed by projected images of the concentration camps – as transfixed like many others before repeated images of the events of 9/11 and other contemporary disasters.

If the audience is held complicit through holding onto its last shreds of idealism, so is the artist. "Critical moments in the history of a culture," Hitler prosaically muses (and in the text Hitler is the only character to speak in prose; the others speak almost exclusively in verse), "frequently require swift and violent actions the elimination of old values the fall of monasteries the tidal rush of some purifying river naturally this wounds us in some obscure place some spiritual cul-de-sac but all the same this gnawing pain should not be interpreted as a reason for inaction on the contrary we take pride in conquering this pain in rendering it the melancholy music which accompanies all." Denmark interrupts him with, "I like melancholia." Responds Hitler (now in verse):

Do you?
Me too
It is the temperament of artists
And the nameless students who deface his works
[he looks around him, the tray still in his arms]
I'll put it down shall I

Not the same as pessimism, this melancholia, and for its humor Found in the Ground, the play and production, is melancholic, and a challenge to the audience to seek a perhaps impossible redemption in their own bodies, and in love and imaginative desire: to avoid the prostration and sexual self-degradation of idealists like Hitler and Denmark, to consider even the justice of a Toonelhuis as provisional, as the judge himself finds it at the end of his life. It is the melancholia of complicity in a bizarre human justice, a parody of the justice found, perhaps, only in the dead – in the "ground" of the title of the play.



Riverside Studios, London W6
Opened 1 October, 2009

The Wrestling School, the company dedicated to the plays of Howard Barker, is celebrating 21 years of existence "in the teeth of critical and bureaucratic hostility". After the shock of my first exposure to Barker I have grown to respect and admire much of his work, with its unflinching moral rigour and stark refusal to let an audience off the hook for even an instant. However, it has been a few years since I last crossed paths with the company, and on this showing he has refined his approach almost out of existence. The trademarks are all present: visual and aural astringency, a world in shards (usually during or after a grisly war), an enclosed environment with a number of vicious and irresolvable personal discords within it. But beyond that, nothing: no events, no dilemmas, nothing except the unremitting condition of devalued desire, articulated depravity and a kind of elegant apocalypse. The (wonderful) mechanical dogs, (curiously coy) quartet of urinating nurses and (challengingly low-key) late appearance of Hitler neither relieve matters nor add any kind of form or shape to them.

In some ways this is Barker's take on Beckett's Endgame: a wheelchair-bound domestic tyrant ordering his household around in the aftermath of, effectively, everything. In this case, former war crimes judge Lord Toonelhuis appears to exist on a diet of the mortal remains of middle-ranking Nazis, and employs a librarian to oversee not the cataloguing of the rare book collection he has painstakingly built up but its immolation, in A to Z order. Librarian, servants, nurses and a bunch of undefined women (including one who periodically walks across upstage topless in a hat which conceals her face, declaiming, "I am all the Anne Franks!") get on each other's nerves for nearly an a hour and a half, then Toonelhuis dies and things take another half-hour to grind to a halt.

There are numerous lapidary pronouncements on life, art and culture, and a whole raft of Nazi imagery and allusions, but none of them seem to connect with anything either within the world of the play or beyond it. Barker seems increasingly to believe that the more dissatisfaction he elicits, the more he must be doing something right; he might do well to recollect that this isn't especially valid as a general principle and to question why he thinks he might be an exceptional case.



Well, this is a challenge, and a gruelling one. Howard Barker gives little away in his latest vision of hell on earth, one of those theatrical experiences where everyone around you seems to be genuflecting at the altar of radical theatre, while you are left scratching your head and feeling like a bear of very little brain.

There are no bears here, but there are three howling mechanical dogs that belong to a senile judge who once presided over the execution of 38 war criminals at Nuremburg and who now appears to be consuming their body parts for lunch. His only regret is that he didn't get to meet Hitler.

So he whiles away the time before death in burning the books in his vast library. The teenage librarian makes feeble protest, has sex with the judge's daughter and contracts a spine-twisting disease as if he has assumed the physical manifestation of this distorted world. The smoke rises from a pit as if from hell itself, and so far they are only up to G in the burning. It takes two hours (no interval) to get to Z and fulfill the judge's ambition to chat with Hitler.

A case of undoubted, indeed mesmerising style over meaning, the show has a cool catwalk shimmer and some very doubtful sexual politics in its portrayal of women: the urinating nurses seem to have stepped straight out of a Carry On film; there is a half-naked headless woman; and the judge's daughter is a raving nymphomaniac.

The whole thing reeks brilliantly of sex and death and, as ever, Barker prods at the worm of private desires eating away at the public face of history. It feels both monumental and unassailable, like a vast piece of theatrical granite. If only Barker would allow us near.

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