Pros: A unique and affecting experience both terrifying and comical in the same breath.
Cons: A whole hour in pitch darkness was a bit too much.
I went along to the Arcola theatre in Dalston with all the usual expectations. I would sit quietly in the dark while a group of people or an individual would be illuminated on a raised plinth in front of me. All the while using their bodies and voices to communicate their story for my entertainment. It turns out only some of this was true in the first half performance of The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo. The hour-long play took place in almost complete pitch darkness, the action was relayed to the audience via headsets that purported to give 3D audio experience. My expectations were certainly hijacked as I cautiously sat down in the theatre.
The story followed Isonzo ‘A Very Old Man’ and Tenna ‘A Very Young Woman’ on their wedding night. The fact that they were both blind gave the context for the clumsy seduction that takes place between the two characters as well as providing the justification for enforced blindness of the audience. The ‘action’ began with a seated melancholy figure wearing a wedding dress surrounded by bright lights. These immediately dimmed into complete darkness that lasted almost the whole play. We were treated to four short bursts of light as the gloomy figure of Tenna left a trace on our vision.
It was certainly a unique experience and the skewed use of theatrical conventions made the initial moments of the play exciting and fresh. It gave a real and scary insight into the motivations and frustrations of Isonzo and Tenna in their attempted connubial copulation. The audio experience was at times fantastic, you could hear the characters move around behind you and almost whisper in your ear. The script was brilliant mixing poetry and tragedy with blunt prose and comedy. The performances of the actors were captivating, really portraying the awkwardness with aplomb.
During the play the lights out approach became more and more terrifying and I felt on the edge of panic on several occasions. That being said sometimes it seemed more like an endurance test than something that added to the play. A better use of this dynamic would have provided more emphasis on the action. The thought did creep into my head a few times that I was just sitting in a dark room listening to a recording, as innovative as it was.
The second play, Judith: A Parting from the Body, was a much more standard affair but no less gripping. The intensity was ramped up as Liam Smith as General Holofernes stalked the stage providing a character simultaneously disgustingly cruel but dreadfully vulnerable as Barker reimagines the story of Judith and Holofernes in an amazing mixture of the lyrical and the base.
We get an unorthodox love story that holds nothing back, as the participants draw attention to the falsity of their flirtation. The chemistry between the two sizzled nonetheless. Judith played by Catherine Cusack was dazzling becoming ever more monstrous and insane. Did they love each other or was it all a pretence? The inability to decide powers the narrative here. Judith’s servant (Kristin Hutchinson) is also a revelation providing a foil for the complex relationship between Judith and Holofernes. The staging was simple but effective, with a particularly impressive trio of busts showing Holofernes in a pose of ecstasy.
These are two plays that refuse to sit back on a well-known script and wring nuances from every word. Both very different experiences and the amount of passion that has gone into each part of the show is evident. The evening felt almost like an inoculation, painful but for my own good.
Author: Howard Barker
Director: Robyn Winfield-Smith
Booking Until: 19th December 2015
Box Office: 020 7503 1646
Booking link: https://www.arcolatheatre.com/production/arcola/howard-barker-double-bill