The Dying of Today, by Howard Barker, Arcola Theatre

  OCTOBER 2008  
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Studio 2 of the Arcola Theatre, London, is transformed into a stylized barber's shop, complete with swivelling leather seat, butler's sink, rails draped with towels that float suspended from the ceiling, and walls covered with crumpled newspaper. It is a very menacing space, full of cutthroat razors and lethal aluminium combs, a place where men entrust their vulnerable heads and necks to the deftness and steadiness of the barber's hand.

A customer, The Visitor, sits in the barber's chair, his hair being cut by The Barber who appears oblivious to the incessant chatter of his verbose client. Each snip of the barber's scissors is accentuated by an offstage sound-montage which heightens each reality of movement into a manic super-reality. Sound, and the amplification of sound, is an important part of the narrative. Scissors cut, drinks are noisily poured, destruction is wreaked, and the wailing of horror-struck citizens is accompanied by a cacophony of funereal horns which build to a crescendo as the white light of day turns blood red in sympathy with those howling beneath its sombre glow.

The Visitor is the bringer of news. At least, he prides himself on being the first bringer of bad news. It is like a hobby for him, a pastime, more exciting than his previous incarnation as a seducer of friends' wives. He has specifically chosen The Barber as the recipient of his news. Why? What possible connection does this stranger recognize between them? What reason can he have for focusing his attention on this one unfortunate man struggling to earn a living in a town where regular customers are his only guaranteed income?

The Visitor appears to achieve a psycho-sexual orgasm at the prospect of delivering his particularly unwelcome news. In his crumpled linen suit, The Visitor tempts and taunts The Barber like a sadistic Robert Peston describing the latest fall in Stock Market shares, or relishing the recessionary doom he, and he alone, can predict for the future. The Visitor's tale is cut short. The Barber, unwilling to wait for the terrible news, pre-empts their shocking reality. He knows, he feels the truth before The Visitor can finally, excruciatingly utter it. The truth is one The Barber must endure with the Stoic passion of a heart-broken father.

Howard Barker's new play is a fascinating tour de force for two magnificent actors. Duncan Bell as The Visitor and George Irving as The Barber command the Arcola Studio space, every nuance of their respective journeys into personal hell registering on the wrapt audience. A surprisingly short play, less than seventy minutes long, it is nevertheless packed with visual and aural imagery. Barker writes like a poet, his play developing a rhythm which is both accessible and emotive. We are listening to a master wordsmith. The result, an intense and visceral experience which, far from deep and depressing, is in fact uplifting and inspiring through the fortitude of its principal characters.

Bell's Visitor is as smooth as a snake, wriggling and writhing in delight at the horror he has elected to announce. Irving's Barber is solid, worldly, defiant, a stolid presence in an ever-changing world. It is The Barber who will survive because it is The Barber who resolutely faces fate and embraces change rather than fighting it.

Gerrard McArthur's direction is tight and responsive to the text. Tomas Leipzig's barber-shop setting is evocative and challenging in its simplicity. This is an excellent play, excellently executed. What joy to know that in our own dark times there are still those whose art transcends the mundanity of neo-realism and whose message, though as unwelcome as The Visitor's, is also vital for us all.

Kevin Quarmby © 2008