REVIEW OF 2019 SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION
Tim Carroll’s choice of Howard Barker’s Victory for the current season at the Shaw Festival may be described as “bold and courageous.” As Artistic Director of the Festival, choosing plays is his job and as a Director who he has chosen to direct it. He directed the play in Hungary in Hungarian in 2002 and Barker is relatively unknown in Canada and it may have looked like a good idea to introduce him more broadly to Canadian audiences.
Barker wrote Victory in 1979 and the play was first produced at the Royal Court Theatre in 1983. Barker considers it “an acknowledged masterpiece” and Carroll tells us that “discovering Howard Barker blew my mind wide open.” So far so good.
The production in the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre was confusing, inept, pretentious and a crashing bore. There were some impromptu reviews by people who never returned after the intermission and the ones that stayed showed little enthusiasm. There was no curtain call at all.
Before the performance begins, Assistant Director Brendan McMurtry-Howlett tells us that the play takes place in the aftermath of the English Civil War. That’s the one where King Charles I was executed by Oliver Cromwell and his followers who established a republic. It did not do well, and the monarchy was re-established with the return of Charles II in 1660.
Charles II is hell-bent on taking vengeance on his father’s murderers and in this play he exhumes the traitors’ bodies, including that of Justice Bradshaw who signed the death warrant for the king. Upon finding the corpses, they are “executed” and their head is placed on a stake in public as an example to the people.
We meet Scrope (Patrick Galligan) who was Justice Bradshaw’s Secretary and he is regretting having betrayed his master by disclosing his place of burial to the King’s soldiers. The latter use foul language including the c word as if they were ordering something at Tim Hortons. The use of colloquial, sexually explicit language is rampant throughout the play and it loses what little shock value it may have after a few minutes.
Talk of sex, display or almost display of genitals, suggested rape, masturbation and whatever else you want to imagine are all there and they neither shock, nor disgust and you and you wonder why they are there at all.
At the end of the first act, we are told to follow a cast member who leads to a rehearsal room in the basement for the Interlude of the play. Most people are seated for the 15-minute scene in a dark area that is supposed to be the vault of the Bank of England. I think this is supposed to be the beginning of capitalism.
The play lasts for 2 hours and 50 minutes.
The published version of the play lists 34 characters plus beggars. The program lists 12 characters only with the note that other parts are played by members of the ensemble. No guidance as to what the other parts are or who will play them. The list gives only the surname and occupation of the characters and they are frequently referred to by their first names in the play. If you can’t remember who is who of the 34 roles that Barker lists or the 12 who play 34 roles, I guess, that is your tough luck. Exit stage right at intermission.
The irony of the whole thing is that there is a superb cast who could have done marvels and may even have made the play comprehensible. Martha Burns plays the widow Bradshaw, a tough woman who has seen a great deal during the ugly Civil War. Deborah Hay plays Nell Gwynn, the actress and mistress of Charles II. She is described as a prostitute. Tom McCamus plays Charles II who is rude, creepy and probably a psychopath. Tom Rooney is Ball, a royalist who becomes a republican and god knows where he stands or what he does.
All is done on an empty stage with characters walking on and off with the audience trying to figure out who is on and who is off and what in the world they are doing.
Bold and courageous? Perhaps. But there are many other factors to be considered in choosing a play and how it is presented. Carroll’s boldness and courage seem to have misfired.
Victory by Howard Barker will run in repertory until October 12, 2019 at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.