November 13, 1998

Coming to Grips with Heavyweight Barker




The Europeans by Howard Barker.

Director: Tim Maddock. Designed by Mary Moore. Lighting: Geoff Cobham. Sound design Jeremy Rowney. Brink Productions.

Balcony Theatre. November 10, 1998.

Murray Bramwell

In London there is an outfit called The Wrestling School which is devoted to the works of playwright Howard Barker. Brink Productions, newly commissioned in Adelaide this year, could well qualify as its southern campus. Over the past three years or so, the Brink team has grappled with such Barker heavyweights as Wounds to the Face and (Uncle)Vanya, the latter, last year, enjoying a distinguished season at Belvoir Street.

This time it is The Europeans, if anything a better work – certainly a more confident production-  than either of the previous ventures. Barker is a formidable playwright. He is prolific, uncompromising and unsparing. He is like a Jacobean timelord, his works on a scale and with a poetic seriousness which is as engrossing as it is seemingly unfashionable. He is like a marvellous mix of Brecht, Bernard Shaw and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The setting for The Europeans is Vienna, after the siege of1529. Starhemberg has fought back the Turkish invasion and Emperor Leopold is presiding over a re-forming sense of  Europe. But it is like a series of  Goya drawings recalling the horrors of war- Katrin is pregnant from rape, Susannah her sister whores herself for bread to the priest, Orphuls who has become an opportunist and a hypocrite while Starhemberg wanders the city despising those he has supposedly liberated. Leopold the giddy Hapsburg convenes debates about the return of art and the nature of Europe. And the beggars remain fatalists-“let us be vicious, as we are, and you be vicious, as you are.”

In Mary Moore’s design the acting area is simply blacked, but lined in clear plastic, with long vertical tubes sporadically irrigating watery blood –  like a wailing wall. This Europe is either transfusing or in a body bag- who can tell ? Geoff Cobham’s lighting sprays from the wings with a searching harshness. Only in rare moments  when characters cease to be self-serving does he relent with creamier tones.

Director Tim Maddock steers the demanding text with confidence and pace and the performances are excellent. Leopold, played with febrile energy by William Allert, drives the work, Paul Moore captures the bitter satire of Orphuls, Syd Brisbane the disillusionment of Starhemberg and Michaela Cantwell the grim pragmatism of Susannah. Lizzie Falkland is outstanding as the tortured Katrin.

With a ninety minute first act The Europeans is a demanding work and sometimes its scope is not readily grasped. But it is a mistake to think of it as formidable. In its vividness of situation and the harsh, crackling beauty of its language Barker’s theatre is always unexpectedly accessible and nourishing. And with their clarity, intelligence and focus Brink Productions again show that they are a young company who can take on the championship contenders and make it look easy. This production is headed for a season at the Wharf in Sydney, it will be in very fine form by then.

“Coming to Grips with Heavyweight Barker”,  The Australian, November 13, 1998, p.16.

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