In the Depths of Dead Love
Time Out says
This controversial fringe show feels more boring than racist.
‘Theatre of Catastrophe’ is what Howard Barker named his own unique brand of plays – full of elliptical language, dislikeable characters and unfathomable meanings. The name has never been so apt. Before the opening of his latest piece – developed from a 2014 Radio 3 drama – The Print Room came under fierce criticism for casting all white actors, even though the play is set in ancient China with characters called Mr Chin, Lord Ghang, Mrs Hu. Many saw this as tantamount to yellowface and a sizeable (though peaceful) protest accompanied the play’s opening night.
So, the biggie: the play (in the opinion of me, a white critic) is not inherently racist. It’s a dull fable-like story about a man who owns a bottomless well and a rich woman who can’t bring herself to dive in. But, and it’s a very big but, there is no fathomable reason why the characters have Chinese names, nor why it’s set in China – unless Barker, who likes working with the mostly white actors he’s often worked with before, was deliberately aiming to provoke. He is, after all, well known for wanting his audiences to have a difficult time at the theatre (congrats Howard, you succeeded again!).
One of the responses offered by the theatre for its all white casting was that they wanted to find the best actors for the roles. They surely failed. The cast isn’t bad, they can certainly enunciate well, but there’s more than a whiff of ham about the performances. The big gestures and Shakespearean cadences sound old hat, and the actors – particularly James Clyde as Mr Chin – adopt a strange stuttering delivery that sounds as if they’ve forgotten their lines.
The set is also not racist. What at first looks like a sex dungeon – ceiling mounted chains painted in black – reveals itself to be an elegant lid or a circular well. The floor is pale stone, and Adrian Sandvaer’s lighting (not racist either) soaks the stage in circles of arid warmth, a very stylish complement to Justin Nardella’s set.
Annoyingly, Barker repeatedly tries to be witty, and his humour clunks badly. Yet there’s momentary beauty in his unique use of language and his frequent perversion of it. Those blazes of poetry burn hard and die fast. The rest is boring. It’s not even exciting anymore, and you used to be able to rely on Barker for that, if nothing else.