The man in the barber’s chair is talking about bad news. Bad news is his business. He seems to relish the bringing of it. He smacks his lips, he takes his time, spinning things out, delaying the blissful moment of revelation as the barber attends to his hair.
Howard Barker’s latest play, presented at the Arcola by the Wrestling School theatre company, takes as its inspiration Thuclydides’ account of the destruction of the Sicilian expedition in BC413. It sounds incredibly dry, but the production is less a history lesson and more a universal statement about the impact of devastating events on society.
This strange visitor talks at length about the impact of bad news, about the way that people handle such information. Eventually the Barber, silent during all of this, is able to say his piece. He has already guessed the nature of the visitor’s bad news: his son has been killed, and not just his son, but all the sons of the city now unprotected, the populace faces enslavement. He takes this news in before calmly describing the horrific death he imagines his child befell. He then destroys his shop, reacting with violence and fury, the tide of brutality overtaking him, consuming him.
Barker’s play has an engaging rhythmic quality. Though the stylised dialogue is intentionally repetitive, there is something hypnotic about the manner in which these two men speak, the contained quality of the piece; their conversation is contrasted with the wails of the bereaved that can be heard from outside. The piece is also very well acted, with George Irving displaying control as the Barber and Duncan Bell almost gleeful as the visitor, looking oddly eel-like, bare-chested beneath his linen suit, hair slicked smooth.
Thomas Leipzig’s design makes excellent use of the Arcola’s small studio 2, creating a strangely timeless anyplace yet one that is also familiar. The scene in which Irving destroys his shop sending pans and cups and combs clattering to the floor, was particularly well executed, while the crumpled newspapers on the back wall also served to emphasise the link with contemporary tragedies. But it was this intention to reflect on tragedy and devastation as universal concepts, this insistence on being a play with its Ideas and Themes so heavily spelt out, that let it down. Though Gerrard MacArthur’s production builds to a satisfying crescendo the use of sound to convey the unseen world outside the shop works well there was something rather academic about it all, it felt like an intellectual exercise, one inspired by books not people. It connected with the head but left the heart untouched.