Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Interview • HOWARD BARKER • The Dying of Today • Arcola Theatre

Howard Barker good-humouredly describes it as “outrageous” that he is not better known in the UK. In fact, he thinks it’s a “scandal” that he is “not presented in theatres in this country.” A scandal indeed, especially as Barker will have no less than five opening nights to attend in Paris next April when a season of his plays is presented in the French capital. For Europeans, Howard Barker’s is a major artistic voice which demands to be heard. Why, then, don’t his plays appear more prominently in theatres over here?

Despite admitting rather wistfully that “a writer can get used to anything,” Barker is determined not to take such neglect lying down. Indeed, his prolific output continues apace. Later this month, his latest play, The Dying of Today, opens at the Arcola Theatre. This hour-long “two-hander,” directed by Gerrard McArthur and featuring George Irving as the ‘Teller’ Dneister and Duncan Bell as his ‘Hearer’ the Barber, is set to astonish and excite audiences and critics alike. Performed in the “intimate space” of the Arcola Studio, The Dying of Today is, according to Barker, perfectly suited to its environ, being such an “intimate play.”

Admitting that his reputation in this country has been founded on his “complex writing style,” Barker bemoans the dearth of actors with the vocal discipline to deliver his work. “So many actors leave drama schools bred up for television,” he remonstrates, whilst also praising the RADA training regime, whose students he regularly directs. Barker notes that his writing tends to be “for young actors normally, or older women, and usually people I’ve worked with before.”

The Dying of Today breaks from this youthful convention, Irving and Bell having many years’ stage and television experience between them. “It is rare for me to write for older men, but The Dying of Today demands it.” Reading the play and appreciating the complexity of its message, it is understandable why. The Dying of Today concerns the breaking of bad, even devastating news, and our responses to it. It is the news which every adult dreads, especially those who have sons or daughters, parents or friends, whose welfare is at risk and about whom we care deeply.

Taking as its creative “point of departure” some moments in the ancient Greek Peloponnesian Wars, The Dying of Today presents us with an ageless dilemma. Is it right or wrong to fear change, to fear ‘The Teller’ of bad news? For Barker, “bad news” is merely the prelude to accepting “that the destruction of society is not such a bad thing after all.” There is a cyclical inevitability to destruction, one which can, through adversity, bring its own sense of unity and mutual acceptance.

The Dying of Today might not, at first glance, appeal to those afraid of asking deep social and political questions about society. To miss this theatrical event would, however, be a profound mistake. Barker asks his audiences to consider the unthinkable, to feel the discomfort of an inconclusive outcome or an anxiety-inducing moment. He does so within the context of a voice which has constantly striven to be unique in British drama. It is that uniqueness which, inevitably, will ensure Howard Barker’s elevated position in the annals of British theatre history. It would be ‘outrageous’ of us all to miss this fascinating piece of work and not to experience its intimate message. Antidote or symptom of our troubled time? The Dying of Today cries out for its audience.

Kevin Quarmby © 2008

Originally published on R&V on 06-03-04

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