Review: Howard Barker’s The Dying of Today at The Other Room, Eifion Ap Cadno
As the auditorium lights go down, tongue sits in cheek and I wrack my brains trying to work out the song playing…
It’s “I Only Have Eyes For You” by The Flamingos. It complements the set beautifully. I have always been terrible at placing decades and fashions, so I’ll play is safe and call it retro. Fashionably old.
A glass Coca-Cola bottle wouldn’t look out-of-place.
This is The Other Room’s second production, following their inaugural Blasted. The set is structurally the same. Where the ill-fortuned painting was, there now exists the similarly fated window of our barbershop where The Dying of Today unfolds.
There are further parallels. As in Blasted, we the audience are privy to a private narrative while the world outside begins to fall apart, soon to spill into the room.
Now, the catastrophe is the collapse of the Athenian empire. After a short-lived period of peace with the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta, the great naval power threw everything at Syracuse in Sicily. Defeat followed defeat which followed defeat, and few returned to tell the tale.
Supposedly a foreigner, while being shaved, spilt the disastrous beans to the barber. This play is that rumour. The British playwright Howard Barker, while revered abroad, remains largely unheard of in the UK, despite having a biblically proportioned oeuvre.
I thank The Other Room for my first foray behind Barker lines. The set design really is quite brilliant. The shop’s mirror is hung on the fourth wall; The Barber and Dneister often stare out at fixed points in the audience who are effectively on the dark side of a one-way mirror. The black and white chequered floor is a perfect enlargement of the chessboard sat in the corner: one which the two characters play their sometimes methodical, occasionally vociferous war of attrition upon. A small detail, I love the two certificates hung on the wall: the medical, surgical connotations are apt.
Both actors give strong, engaging performances. Christian Patterson, who played the unappealing Ian in the aforementioned Blasted, now dons the white barber’s apron. There remains a dangerous streak of caprice. He is powerful, both vocally and physically. He is also very big. Leander Deeny contrasts this perhaps, but is no less a presence. Sprightly and playful, he is incredibly endearing even while revealing doom and gloom. His vulnerability excites. Interesting fact: Deeny was beefy Chris Evans’ skinny body double in Captain America: The First Avenger.
Their real performances however, shine through in their relationship with each other. On reflection it is difficult to extricate the two individuals from what is a very well performed two-hander.
Director Kate Wasserberg has really tightened the grip on Barker’s words. I have yet to look up half the ones I scrawled down on my programme in confusion. Fortunately this vocab-fest in her capable hands is not as daunting as it could be. The comic timing is delectable.
I am still unsure about the play. Initially I felt it was simply a cynical exploration of human nature. I realise it is not so simple. Again, like Blasted, it is draped in despair, making it difficult to see the good. It becomes apparent who the real victim is, good does prevail; and I like that. I agree with Natasha Tripney who, writing for The Stage, commented “the play as a whole lacks emotional weight and feels distant, surface-skimming”. I struggled to connect with either character; I didn’t pity The Barber’s personal loss as he so readily contextualises it. Disaster makes a philosopher of him. Perhaps, like Brecht’s Epic Theatre, we are encouraged to think about the state of things. I’m just not sure what that is.
You can read Dominic Cavendish’s review of its initial production at The Arcola here www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/drama/3562856/The-Dying-of-Today-at-the-Arcola-review.html
On until April 11th, I am excited by this second, successful production at The Other Room. It is close, intimate theatre: where the sounds of the bar to the left and the bins on the right remind you of the city.
Don’t miss out- tickets are available from their website www.otherroomtheatre.com
Review by Eifion Ap Cadno
Photography by Pallasca Photography