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Bog-standard Barker: Lot and his God at the Print Room (***)

Howard Barker’s recent elevation from enfant terrible to standing member of the British theatre establishment may have been a kicking and screaming drag out of the gutter, but his plays are still the guttural, complex, poetic and grim affairs they always have been. In the case of this new piece at the Print Room, however, it appears that he’s lost a bit of his revolutionary zeal.

Barker’s always been a difficult beast – from his early, left-wing political diatribes through to his pre-Kane monuments to human despair, and his modern, more poetic parables, he’s always maintained a distance from popular taste. It was a point of pride for him that each of his new plays (which he churns out at the rate of 2-3 a year) landed on the desk of the National Theatre, where they were summarily rejected, before ending up on a more liberal and artistic European stage. However, with his popularity spiking, thanks to those who first performed his pieces now occupying more positions of producorial power, and Scenes from an Execution having had a much delayed airing at the very National Theatre Barker so decries, it’s only right that smaller fringe and Off-West End theatres are now performing his work “as it was meant to be”.

But he’s just too fashionable now – post-modern before it was trendy, in-yer-face before the term was invented, and always highly poetic, it’s no surprise that Barker is finally receiving the popular airing his work always deserved in the UK. And lest we forget that all of those who gave his work a public airing in this country to begin with (I’m thinking particularly of his abandoned theatre company The Wrestling School) are now involved with institutions where they can bang his drum much more audibly, I suppose there was always a certain inevitability to this transition.

It’s such a shame, then, that his latest play is so defanged – if anything, it’s a replication of themes and ideas he’s so often pursued, in concept as well as production. I suppose you could see Lot and His God as a reiteration of classic Barker: it’s all there, from highly sexualised female characters through Biblical allegory to rapid-fire monologues and bouncy dialogue. But it doesn’t have his trademark grotesquery – the horror is tame, the dialogue dispassionate, and the result a little bland.

It also looks like Barker: since he often took on various production roles under various pseudonyms, he also created a very recognisable Barkerian production style as well as play: the tall, thin woman (although here she is, atypically, blonde) in a sharp dress suit with an ostentatious hat, heels and gloves; the grubby angelic figure – in this case, an actual angel – and the figure writhing in pain across the stage in half-light. It all feels representative instead of stylistic: this is what Barker made popular, and not what best befits the play.

And I’m not one to decry classic Barker – I’ve always loved classic Barker. This particular script is simply not that interesting: a Barkerian analysis of the Biblical Lot was always going to be hyper-sexualised and irreligious, but he steps up to bat with strange restraint: the violence and the sex are all distanced, and described rather than being shown in poetic and powerful style. Maybe this is Barker’s reaction to how violent and eroticised theatre has become during his career, by not showing it at all. But his strength was always in doing things his way, not being affected by anyone else and ploughing his own dark furrow, though now he seems to be conforming against public opinion instead of striking off on his own.

In any case, this is a very commendable production, if a bit of a damp squib on the Barker back catalogue. The performances are excellent across the board, especially from Justin Avoth as the angel Drogheda, who manages Barker’s difficult lines with rapid precision. Hermione Gulliford gives a nice comic wit to the words as well, but Mark Tandy struggles a little as Lot. The design, both of set and costumes, is professional and slick, and it’s all very watchable.

I would note though, to close, that there’s much more to Barker than the overexaggerated version the National have portrayed (and may continue to do so). This isn’t it, but there’s some hope that returning to the fringe proper might help re-establish the old angry bark – even if the next play that lands on the National Theatre’s desk isn’t as quickly and summarily dismissed as before.

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