REVIEW: Howard Barker’s The Dying of Today The Other Room, Cardiff by Sam Pryce

This second course in Kate Wasserberg’s ‘Life in Close Up’ season at Porter’s was a little hard to swallow, especially after the resounding success of the previous production: Sarah Kane’s unforgettable play, Blasted. Kane is a hard act to follow. We all know that. But Howard Barker offers enough explosive action and quasi-philosophical drama to keep us intellectually stimulated in this seventy-minute two-hander, The Dying of Today.
Based rather obscurely on an apparently hot-blooded moment in ancient history – Thucydides’s account of the destruction of the Sicilian expedition in 413BC (don’t ask me) – Barker propounds his ‘theatre of catastrophe’ theory by showing an outbreak of crippling grief within the innocuous surroundings of a barbershop. Dneister, a sprightly customer, notifies the barber, after a flurry of ostentatious yammering, of some bad news: the barber’s son has died. What follows is the gripping breakdown and eventual transformation of the barber’s spirit. Alongside that, some thought-provoking conclusions are reached through the men’s incessant and progressively violent interaction about the nature of belief, war and death.
The problem, in my opinion, is the writing. Barker is quoted in the programme as having said that he ‘[doesn’t] think about the audience at all’ when writing. Then who is he writing for? Clearly himself. His convoluted style of dramaturgy comprises complex, meandering sentences that attempt to clarify such themes as war and belief. This, to me, leaves no room for characterisation and renders both these characters as the exact same person. The result is self-indulgent. If we take Sarah Kane’s writing (which, for me, is far superior to Barker’s), we can see how she can create fully-formed scenes and characters while still tackling big themes but distilling down to the simplest, clearest image or essence, making truly engaging drama. She can make a catastrophe clear of clouds. You may call me a philistine for badgering Barker but I think his style was unnecessarily decadent, placing style high over substance.
Saying that, a pair of riveting performances are still on offer, brought to fruition by Kate Wasserberg’s always brilliant, scrupulous direction. Leander Deeny, as the visitor burdened with bad news, blabbers to the barber with striking volatility, injecting some valued humour into tense moments. Christian Patterson excels once again as an initially reserved character before exploding into a range of fluctuating emotions. His acting is truly a pleasure to watch. I’d happily go along to any play with Patterson in the cast. The final sequence, however, of the barber reflecting on what has happened to the tune of ‘People They Ain’t No Good’ reeks of the toe-curling sentimentality of an X Factor sob story. It simply does not correlate with the play’s deeply serious and unsentimental subject matter.
Wasserberg’s second offering in this season then may not be as strong as Blasted, but there still is enough enrapturing action to keep anyone engaged.
‘The Dying of Today’ is at The Other Room in Porter’s, Cardiff until 11th April 2015
Photography by Pallasca Photography

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