Paul Anderson, review of Seven Lears by Howard Barker (Royal Court), Tribune, 12 January 1990
Howard Barker is an angry man: he believes that contemporary theatre is getting almost everything completely wrong.
This is not an unusual belief among playwrights. What sets Barker apart is the reasoning behind his deep antipathy to “normal theatre”. Barker believes that the breakdown in moral consensus over the-past decade demands a theatre that challenges audiences to think through big moral questions – a complex, difficult, anti-realist theatre in which there is no simple “message” and no mere playing for laughs. “The Theatre of Catastrophe”, he writes in Arguments for a Theatre, a collection of recently published essays, “takes as its first principle the idea that art is not digestible. Rather it is an irritant in consciousness like the grain of sand in the oyster’s gut.”
Barker’s iconoclasm and the obscurity of his plays have won him plenty of enemies, but he also inspires fierce loyalty among a minority of actors, directors, theatre-goers and critics. Seven Lears, at the Royal Court in a joint production by the Leicester Haymarket, the Sheffield Crucible and The Wrestling School, the company formed by Kenny Ireland and Hugh Fraser to perform Barker’s work, should do much to augment the ranks of his admirers.
It is, to say the least, an ambitious play: few modern playwrights would dare to write any sort of a prelude to Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, let alone one that revises so much received wisdom about Shakespeare’s characters. Barker takes as his starting point the “significant absence” of Lear’s wife in King Lear, and assumes that she has been “expunged from memory” by Lear and his daughters, hated so completely that she is never even named. More shocking still, the wife Barker creates for Lear, Clarissa, is hated for being too good.
Seven Lears traces the family’s history from Lear’s youth and the events that lead up to his assumption of the throne – his schooling in amoraltiy by a bishop, his carnal liaison with the innocent Clarissa’s mother, Prudentia. Lear is a charming impetuous rake, unfit to govern and aware of it. On the death of his father, his first act is to make the old king’s chief adviser, Horbling, his fool. His second is to make Clarissa his wife.
Lear’s reign is a catalogue of public disaster and private debauchery. His army is routed on a foreign expedition; relieved by a force led by Clarissa, he is unable to thank his soldiers for their sacrifices and narrowly escapes being killed by one of them. Back home, he keeps Prudentia as a mistress while Clarissa bears Goneril and Regan. He turns his attention to building a flying machine, then retires from his family to live with Prudentia in a tower while the poor starve. In middle age, he encourages Clarissa to mate with Kent, then attempts to drown their progeny, Cordelia, in a vat of gin.
Through all this, Clarissa is a suffering saint yet, when the play comes to its climax as she is denounced by her daughters, it is difficult not to empathise with them, vile as they are, even though it is impossible to deny her virtue. This is as disturbing a predicament for an audience as any I have experienced.
How far this would be possible without a committed cast is a moot point. Barker’s writing is sometimes sloppy, and his use of a “Chorus of the Gaoled” to represent the suffering poor is clumsy. But the actors in this production are superb, with Nicholas Le Prevost’s Lear, Jemma Redgrave’s Clarissa and Jane Bertish’s Prudentia all magnetic. Taken as a whole, Seven Lears is a theatrical tour de force, quite unlike anything else currently on the London stage.