PLEVNA: MEDITATIONS ON HATRED and GARY THE THIEF
Two poem-plays by Howard Barker
Directed by Richard Romagnoli
Through July 31st
At The Atlantic Stage 2 (330 W. 16th St., btw. 8th & 9th Ave.)
For tickets ($25, $15 for students/seniors), call 212-279-4200
Cataloguing irrevocable evil
‘Greatest living, breathing English poet’ meditates on hatred
BY JERRY TALLMER
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
— George Santayana
Well then, let us entertain some repetitions:
Troy’s bleeding monuments
Massada’s intoxicating leaps
Syracuse’s innovative deaths
Vienna’s woods of castration
Lucknow’s pond of fragments
Sebastopol’s blinded dandies
Plevna’s wails among the nightingales
Port Arthur’s pulping of peasantries
Kut’s boiling clerks
Leningrad’s sledging to funerals
Stalingrad’s death on the assembly line
Berlin’s flak of little boys
Dien Bien Phu’s distance from Paris
Burma’s surgical cinemas
These are the various placenames of man’s most atrocious deeds of inhumanity to fellow man (and woman, and child). They are also some of the ruthless, scarifying lines of “Plevna: Meditations on Hatred,” by 46-year-old London-born Howard Barker — to my mind the greatest living, breathing English poet.
If Barker immediately precedes that catalogue of irrevocable evil with a nervous kiss-off about “The poet’s horror at the fallibility of words,” don’t worry. Poet/playwright Barker is also the founder and prime mover of a theater company called The Wrestling School — so you can see where he’s at.
Every few years, something of his zooms across the Atlantic to shake us up on this side of the pond, and “Plevna: Meditations on Hatred” is now on a double bill with Barker’s no less ruthless, if narrower-focused “Gary the Thief” through the end of the month.
The actors who embody these pieces — perform, speak, be them — are compact, quiet, intense Alex Draper and tall, rugged Robert Emmet (“for the Irish patriot of that name”) Lunney.
Draper, who says yes, he’s related to Paul Draper (the intense, quiet dancer of my own boyhood), does the many-voiced “Pevna.” Lunney does “Gary the Thief” and all the voices there.
Overseeing the whole thing is director Richard Romagnoli, a New Yorker who has long admired Barker and brought us such other tough, crazy plays of his as “A Hard Heart” in 2007. Romagnoli first met Barker at a rehearsal in London that year.
Draper and Lunney’s first glance of the man behind the words was at a CUNY “Howard Barker Day” a couple of months ago. He showed up — “dressed as a proper English gentleman” — with a critic friend and an actress muse in tow, or vice versa.
Though he is not, the American actors say, as “aloof” and “intellectually arrogant” as his photographs may imply, he is “rather formidable of demeanor” and “ascetic and spare in his language.”
In short, this journalist hazards, rather like the public, though not the private, Samuel Beckett.
But the writer Barker most resembles — not physically or anything else, but for fracturing and re-welding the English language — is again, to me, Dylan Thomas.
Particularly throughout “Gary the Thief.”
His deft intrusions
His quaking of humble order
His swiveling eye sweeping
The seams of poverty
Are seized in its liquid stare…
Gary the thief
Wears murder like a brooch…
I see this Gary as a sort of shambling, cursing, wheedling, whining blot-on-the-sidewalk Limey version of Walter Brennan as Eddie in the 1944 Hawks/Bogart/Bacall “To Have and Have Not,” if you go back that far.
They come to arrest him.
The captors in the hurtling van
Already applaud his wit
They Gary this and Gary that
Play yer cards right
Guard yer bum
Poor diet in the seventh month
The angle of the birth
Exposure to fumes in the pram
The way the mother bawls
The shards from damaged throats
A shrapnel of abuse
Through which the infant crawls
This made Gary the thief
At a certain point in the events at CUNY, Barker was asked about what he was trying to say in his plays and poems.
“It all comes down to one word,” he replied. “Conscience.”
“Meaning, of course, lack of conscience,” says actor Draper. “It’s kind of strange trying to find people who give a shit about any of this stuff. Sometimes we do, but not often.”
“So Barker grows progressively more frustrated and desperate,” says actor Lunney.
The running time of the show is 23 minutes plus 23 minutes — “beefy but short,’ says its director.
“Barker is economical, he really is,” declares Lunney. “Says precisely what he wants to say, and that’s it. Yet his plays are incredibly actor-friendly, very speakable. Some of it is in free verse, some in iambic pentameter. The rhythm eludes me, yet I know it’s there.”
Some of “Gary the Thief” is spoken in the first person. Much else is spoken — presumably — by outside observer or observers. “At one point during rehearsals,” says Lunney, “I said it was like a doppelganger.
“Then there is one other character: the audience. I have no idea how that is going to affect the dynamic.”
For his part, Gary Draper wishes they could have had “six weeks of rehearsals and a two-year run. Like The Berliner Ensemble. Then we’d know about the dynamic.”
Have any of you guys ever been to any of the atrocity zones in “Plevna”?
“I’ve been to Barcelona,” said Draper.
“I’ve been to Brighton, does that count?” said Lunney. Brighton, Britain’s Atlantic City (except that it’s not on the Atlantic), is where Howard Barker lives — and where once upon a time Graham Greene saw murder in a grain of sand.
Howard Barker is his heir too.