What does one do when one believes one is continually let down by society and the ‘walls’ that once imprisonedyou? When school, work and football clubs kick you out so that you can’t even have the honour of that particular sense of belonging? Well, in frustration, some will resort to violence, that being the product of circumstance, education, self agency and social upbringing. Others will try to make a go of it and haul themselves up by “rope and anchor” back to that wall and over it, smashing the “glass ceiling” only to be brought down again by the cruel lunges of fate. Yet others will rise but will ultimately self destruct.
Nonetheless, is it as simple as that?
In Barbarians, a 1977 play here receiving its second revival in quick succession following a dearth of productions in London for twenty years, playwright Barrie Keeffe reveals that it is not. And in JMK Award Winner Liz Stevenson’s production, it is not the violence, the self harm, the reliance on feeling a part of Man United’s red devils for self esteem and identity that shocks, but the pervasive presence of the illusions of belonging under whose cloak we all sometimes shelter and the sheer utter sense of despair, uselessness, powerlessness and hopelessness that comes with the shattering of these illusions instead.
Skinheads Paul and Jan are, by swings and turns, cocky and compassionate, infantile and infallible, virtuous and vitriolic. Lacking education, leadership and hope, their bullied and racially abused friend Louis descends with them into a hell where ambitious and competitive tendencies are thwarted by the invisible hand of social pressures which trigger, in turn, murderous internal jealousies and violent frustrations. It’s a ‘skewered’ world where even the amount of abuse one suffers can make a positive contribution to one’s idea of self worth.
On BBC Radio Three Keeffe talks about how ‘sadly’ the play still seems relevant today. Liz Stevenson’s production teases this relevance out, taking the skinhead's line “it’s celebrities who make society tick” and developing the set into not only a walled prison and hostile looking flats that Paul repeatedly kicks, but into a kind of cat walk around which the actors free run as if in their own movie or play (which of course, they are). Fly Davis’ multi level walkways and flat roofs also gives the chance for the characters to bask in Matt Leventhall’s hot spotlights and haunt the space like an emotionally churned up James Dean and brings to mind scenes from Stephen Frear’s film My Beautiful Laundrette.
This first comparison is not by chance, everyone wants to be a James Dean, even as this want is used as a racial slur. Everyone wants, or at the least these boys do, to be a superhero- there’s a wonderful letting go towards the end of the first play, where the characters indulge in their childishness, redacting their confused fumbled explorations of the adult world in favour of something far more primal and burning.
It’s this burning and sense of growth, of trying and coming, a hidden theme in Keefe’s work right from the initial descriptions of how a man dies in a car at the top of the play, that Liz Stevenson and the actors also tease out. It comes to a beautiful culmination when Fisayo Akinade as Louis and Leventhall’s light meet in the form of a chrysalis that is just about to break. And by the end, Brian Vernel’s Paul finds his mojo, unfortunately. So does shy and retiring Louis but Alex Austin’s Jan’s revelations are the most bitter. Cleverly, as is the case with his mother, Jan’s own internal problems are horribly amplified.
The slow work up to Brian Vernel’s terrible anger as Paul is daring. Actor and director are adept at showing us his hard boy veneer which hides a sullen, petty violent babyishness. In reverse, is the equally slow and daring reveal of Louis, whom Fisayo Akinade shows to grow in confidence as the play progresses, but who is still dominated by his sense of inferiority and fear. Alex Austin as Jan, whose character is the least sure of himself and the least aggressive, has the biggest monster to hide and the actor's emotional reveal is acute and raw.
Some terrific ensemble work by this fine trio of talented young actors and some boisterous and insightful directing from Liz Stevenson.
cast includes: Fisayo Akinade, Alex Austin, Brian Vernel
directed by: Liz Stevenson
written by: Barrie Keeffe
until 19th December