Skip to main content

Barbarians- Liz Stevenson- Barrie Keeffe- Young Vic


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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Walking the Tightrope- Theatre Delicatessen

Site-specific set? Perhaps. In the old Guardian offices in Farringdon, Offstage Theatre and Theatre Uncut curate a cycle of 12 short plays exploring the tension[s] between art and politics, reactions to the budget cuts to the arts in the UK and debate freedom of expression controversies. Corruption, class divides, perception, blood money, gesture politics and culpability, it’s all there and recent topical events are given stage time, from The Tricycle’s controversial decision to withdraw their support for the UK Jewish Film Festival to the Barbican’s cancelled Exhibit B. The plays are entertaining- Sun City by April De Angelis, Re: Exhibit by Gbolahan Obisesan, Old Newland by Julie Pascal, Tickets are on Sale Now by Caryl Churchill and Exhibit A, by Neil LaBute, all deserve special mention for looking beyond the parameters of funding and freedom of expression in the UK arts- by which of course, I mean a theatrical London still surfing the very last trickling waves of Colonialism and it…

A Man of Good Hope: review

“The ability to have someone tell your story is so important. It says you know I was here.” Maya Angelou It’s a piece of musical theatre about having hope. It’s an urgent work which speaks of age old global phenomenons such as migration and life as a persecuted refugee. The term refugee has been part of the western world’s history since the persecution of protestants in France in 1540, the term migrant is biblical. The book upon which the show is based, an account of the life of Somali Asad Abdullahi who witnessed the murder of his mother when he was eight years old in Mogadishu during the civil war and who then fled across Africa as a boy and young man as a consequence, is in some ways so traumatic a read that the stage work has to offer more positivity than the title infers. 
In the Isango Ensemble and director Mark Dornford-May, with a little help from Stephen Daldry, the book, by Jonny Steinberg, has found the perfect stage partners. One feels that no other company could do this wor…

Safe House- art meets theatre at the Young Vic with Jeremy Herbert and Gabriella Sonabend

It starts with a journey down a narrow corridor, fist clenching wooden key.
‘Follow the yellow line’ the polite Usher says and I do, around the corner and into a foyer area, where I am met with a gust of wind from a machine that Jeremy Herbert, the designer, has created himself. As my hair blows and my cheeks and eyes are battered as if I am standing on top of a mountain, I am tempted to remain here, to continue to feel the gusts in my face and listen to the sound the wind makes. I don’t want anything else and I can’t hear anything else, only aware of a need to immerse myself in it, to let myself go in the rapid flashing lights that emanate from its surface. I’m one who craves aloneness and enjoys it all too well, but I am afraid that someone will come and disturb this brief relationship myself and the wind machine have struck up, or that my mind will interfere, the buzz of thoughts getting the better of me.. so I move on around the room, after all, there are four more ‘safes’, all a s…