There is a theatre company in London dedicated to producing the work of Howard Barker called The Wrestling School. As they explain on their site:
“…the name arose from the feeling that the company must ‘wrestle’ with the ideas in the text before being able to present them effectively on stage. In studying Barker’s work and learning new techniques for its presentation, the company behaves like a school, though it is not trying to teach anything to those who witness its productions.”
This is an idea that has long drawn me to Barker – that art is a problem that must be met by actors and audiences who are interested in taking the energy and time to work through the pieces together. In one of the Prologues to The Bite of the Night, a woman turns to her friends after seeing an evening of theatre:
That is art, it is hard work
And one friend said, too hard for me
And the other said if you will
I will come again
Because I found it hard I felt honoured
I’ve always been drawn to that idea – that by challenging an audience we are in fact honoring them. And that by challenging ourselves as artists we are honoring the work we choose to do. (Which I think explains a lot about the season selection process that Whistler goes through each year.)
Of course, when we’re struggling and sweating and fighting it out with a play in rehearsal, there is a little tiny part of my soul that kind of wishes I liked Noel Coward. Or Sarah Ruhl. Someone who wouldn’t make me work so hard… Fortunately, that little voice stays quiet and I don’t subject anyone else to her whims. Because, except for brief moments at the end of a long night of rehearsal, I really do love the process of getting my hands and brain dirty and ploughing through emotionally and morally messy texts.
The first two weeks are doubly-disconcerting, because while we’re working through an incredibly difficult text filled with characters who are literally battling it out against each other, we’re also finding the physical vocabulary of the production – how people move in space and what the spaces are that they move through.
Literally, the play is set in the aftermath of the siege of Vienna in 1683: rubble in the streets, palace rooms that have been stripped of furniture, a park where children picnic mere yards away from a public execution. When Mac and I first met to discuss the scenic design, we were both very clear that we didn’t want to develop anything that would approximate naturalism with our set – the locations inform direction, performance and lighting of the scenes, but to worry about creating the actual locations in great detail seemed utterly wrong.
In Arguments for a Theatre, Barker explores the setting for his plays:
“I set my theatre in landscapes, not because I secretly wished to write film, but because the Polish swamp or the Flanders plain were manifestations of consciousness, just as the castle in The Castle is not set but the outcome of spiritual despair, and the burned out gaol in The Hang of the Gaol a massive shade of frustrated longing.”
So, literalism is out the door. Which suits us just fine. Mac has designed an open space for us (using roughly the same configuration that we used for Tales from Ovid) with clean and elegant furniture pieces that can be reconfigured to designate different locations. And we’ve been spending the past two weeks learning how to use them.