No End of Blame (2017)
Directed by Damien Ryan
Written by Howard Barker
October 12, 2017 to October 28, 2017
Lovers of history, art, politics and the study of culture will be enthralled by this neglected 20th Century masterpiece, now so profoundly topical, about censorship of the world’s most innocent satirical device – the political cartoon.
Directed by Damien Ryan, Howard Barker’s No End of Blame is a sublimely playful, dangerous and pertinent political story. Set over 6 decades of the 20th Century across Europe, the play pits a passionate, provocative pair of artists, one a painter, the other a cartoonist, against the forces of censorship and insidious state control that corrupt and stifle the human right to freedom of thought and freedom of speech. This brutal and savagely funny play could not be more relevant to our modern world and its new brand of war, journalism and self-expression. A visual and aural feast for the senses.
The cartoonist in No End Of Blame makes quick art – “dries quick, speaks quick, hurts”. It’s a rapid and dangerous scratch on the surface of the earth – “claw a little protest on the granite ball” - as Barker puts it. A mark with a pencil seems like a pretty feeble attack on a government or regime. But a pencil mark can get you killed, as we know – marking your vote in a revolutionary election for example, the publishing of a book in an oppressive regime, an insulting drawing or cartoon. The task of assigning the blame seems futile and insurmountable when such expressions of freedom can cost you life and liberty. And who are artists to think our morality is worthy of blaming, of having our say, of sending the community a message? We’re as flawed as the people we blame or accuse or protest about. Artists are often as fucked up as the stories we tell and the people we criticize or lampoon. So what right we do we have? Every right, according to Howard Barker - we must speak, we must blame, take a side, accuse when it is necessary or get off the planet. Don’t just follow blindly, don’t be neutral - speak, protest, question. If you are not going to take a piss, get off the pisspan, someone else wants it.
The pencil is such a humble and fundamental artistic tool. The ultimate blunt instrument. Sharpened, it can do so much, things that might seem like nothing in isolation but can change the world. A pencil can make a drawing, that drawing can become immortal. A pencil can write a play, a book. A speech for a Nobel Prize or words to fuel an army. It can make a sum. Can test a theory or prove a result. Can articulate the inner practical workings of the human body or the rocket engine. Can tell a story, write a name, pass on information that could save a life or a country. Can design a city. It marked up the wood that built your home. And it can do great harm too. It can point the finger. It can name the name, can destroy a life, hurt a person or an entire people. Can take a god’s image in vain. As the Charlie Hebdo massacre demonstrated, it can bring catastrophe and, conversely, unite the world in response.
A pencil in this play is the world entire. To us, it represents any artistic expression or endeavour. It is the most human of tools, regenerative and destructive. The play, in the ugliest and most beautiful ways, tells us never to put our pencils down.
Grigor Gabor, (played here by the wonderful actor and writer, Sam O’Sullivan) is the artist in this story. He wants to get things right, his pencil sees a perfect possibility, that the ‘line’ can define the absolute differences between things – between what makes a man and what makes a woman, between happiness and sadness, between a represented fact and a lie. It “puts a form on formlessness, guides us through the labyrinth”. He captures things with his pencil, like a camera, and he feels because he can capture the form of something, anything, that he has a right to its truth, anyone’s truth. At the play’s beginning, he has captured a woman at gunpoint and feels he’s morally sound in doing so because he is not taking anything from her, just her image, with his pencil. Of course he is taking. All art is vampiric, feeding a culture while sucking its blood. Artists take, telling themselves it is in order to give - take people’s suffering, pain, tragedies, elations, successes, every human experience and make a product from them – plays, painting, songs, statues, photographs, films. In Grigor’s actions, we see this in extremis. The gentle, sensitive life-drawer conjuring a naked body onto his page at the beginning of this play is enacting a violation as profound as any so-called victimless crime in the internet age, particularly as this Romanian peasant woman cannot understand his pacifistic explanations, but does understand the gun pointed at her and the screaming to stand still and leave her clothes on the ground. It is shocking to watch. But we stand beneath the Sistine Chapel ceiling or before thousands of celebrated classical nude artworks knowing nothing of the models whose form was impressed or the circumstances of their impression. Their involvement may have been voluntary or may have been coerced, economic enslavement, violence, sex or intimidation. We will never know. How many intimate raw details of personal experience and the lives of others make up the stories we devour in literature, film and theatre. Someone’s borrowed truth is our fiction. After the war, in the art institute, Grigor is at it again, capturing Stella – a volunteer this time, but one whose body was used to keep her alive during the cataclysmic war that has butchered her country, whoring herself to racketeers to stay afloat. Now her body is still her tool and her income - for a few quid at the art institute, maybe a free lunch - and if she would only sit still, Grigor could capture her. If the world would sit still, would stop moving so quickly, he could take total control over it and be perfectly content, a little corner where he can paint and get it right, make it make sense.
But art is not about stillness, not even about making sense. Howard Barker has no interest in making sense or being politically correct or rational, in fact his moments of complete irrationality are the secrets to any understanding we might have of his deeply original plays. Eventually, as an older man, Grigor will “paint by numbers”, ensuring total control of the result – “no grievance, no sin, no wit, no shit” - a predetermined accuracy. If the younger Grigor would listen to Stella, to his model’s words, to her bruises and her smiles, not just her flesh and the line of her form, he would be able draw her real life, not just her anatomy, and that is part of what this play is saying about an artist’s responsibilities. If he could find her irrationality interesting, then he could truly draw her form and capture her spirit. Like actors in independent theatre, we are undertaking an utterly irrational task in telling stories that send us broke purely because we believe in the medium. It is a form of madness and a very personal, shared experience to have a group of people go through it together with us.
It is the irrational, disordered side of human behaviour - the wild, impulsive side, our instincts and desires - that interest Barker, as they did the Ancient Greek playwrights, taking an audience into extreme states of desecration and destruction that come from our failure to pay attention to our irrational sides, to unwritten laws and impulses that govern our consciences and choices, well outside of social and political order. This is where Barker situates No End of Blame, particularly it’s opening scene, in the wilderness of human experience, where order and right and wrong have no privileged perspective and the characters will have to work out for themselves what kind of person they are – their good self, their “bad self”.
Artists change what they see and are changed by what they make, nothing is actually immutable, nothing sits still, not even a life drawing, not even a bowl of fruit, everything is in decay, rushing to its own destruction – “death is shoving its mouth against the sandbags”, as Barker puts it:
“Look at that ceiling, smooth, ain’t it, looks fine, looks perfect, but underneath the plaster, how many little parasites? Those great steel joists, how much metal strain? …and just behind it, mud and clay, pressing, pressing to get in, wanting to burst through and stuff your mouth with earth.”
These typically Barker-ite images reminded us in rehearsal of the news of London’s ‘fatberg’, a “total monster” growing beneath the city that if not destroyed will eventually flood London’s streets with raw sewerage. From the Guardian, UK:
“A fatberg weighing the same as 11 double decker buses and stretching the length of two football pitches is blocking a sectionof London’s ageing sewage network. The congealed mass of fat, wet wipes and nappies risks raw sewage flooding on to the streets in Whitechapel, east London, had it not been discovered during a routine inspection earlier this month. Now workmen armed with shovels and high-powered jets are working seven days a week to break it up. The grim task is expected to take three weeks. Thames Water’s head of waste networks, Matt Rimmer, said: “This fatberg is the biggest we’ve ever seen. It’s a total monster and taking a lot of manpower and machinery to remove as it’s set hard.”
As Barker says, beneath and around us, death and waste are pressing toward our destruction – “there is no safe place”.
Playwrights, artists and actors make us see what we think we already know in new and different ways. Barker’s Russian censorship committee in Scene 3 is often played (when this play is played at all) as a set of caricatured comedians, silly Soviet 2-D sketches who are gathered to crush free thought, because ‘we all know what the Soviet union was like, don’t we?’. But in the end we don’t, do we. This was a great human experiment and many people were believing very hard in its premise and its promise. The same applies to some of the other galaxy of figures in this epic story, they can seem Pythonesque and are undoubtedly satiric at times, but I find no caricatures in this entire play, I am all convinced by the existence of all of them, they seem very real to me. The Soviet censorship committee hurts so much more because it is a very passionate and very real group of people who genuinely believe they are helping a fellow artist, not suppressing him. To see well meaning artists crush the work of another artist is much more debilitating than seeing typical apparatchiks doing so, and reminds us very palpably that it is happening all the time – what we can and cannot say in the theatre, who we should and shouldn’t cast, what stories are ok to tell in the current climate and what should never be performed again. Artists pressure other artists all the time.
Barker makes us consider the difference between entertainment and art. Entertainment reassures us of the world we think we know and helps us relax in the process; art makes the known seem strange and unfamiliar and forces us to think about what we take for granted - what horror is pressing against the smooth walls and metal joists, what impulses are hiding just behind our civilized lives? Howard Barker is a great hater of entertainment. His deeply flawed creation in No End of Blame, Bela Veracek (played by Akos Armont, one of the bravest and smartest actors I have every worked with), finds art in the traditional sense futile, it seeks to reconcile instead of change, it preserves instead of provoking. Illona, (Lizzie Schebesta, whose advocacy and intelligence has been a guiding influence on this production for a long time) is the young Hungarian artist who both Bela and Grigor love or at least want, and she wants something herself - to “do something” - to use her pencil to be reckoned with, to break out of her dying Hungary, “marry the future, divorce the past”. Illona is perhaps Bela’s true rival in the story, the girl he flees Hungary with, becomes his wife and mother to their child, Judith. Illona is a fellow artist who is never entirely awed by Bela’s great ‘genius’, she has her own pencils and Lizzie haunts Akos in the story - as his wife, then recurring as a war nurse in the RAF fields, and a Daily Mirror secretary in 1973 whose life has remained untouched by the desperate etching of this great European cartoonist and visionary. She remains a ghost challenging the whole concept that his work and his life are compelling enough to go on with or whether, for all his noise and speech and effort, he has left even the barest mark, other than letting his family walk away from him and never speaking of them again.
Grigor’s love, like his art, wants to deify and stifle Illona - not to let her change, but to stay still, to regress to an Eden-like life in the woods. He wants her not to cry, not to get upset, just to be a form in harmony with his, to be a woman. The relationship between these three Hungarian kids shunted into growing up very quickly by a collapsing country and dreams of a world elsewhere, is one of the only emotionally or logically satisfying parts in the fractured storytelling of this play. It is something that is briefly sustained before being moved on from, changed by the artist in case we become too attached to them. Barker drops the relationship on the roadside, or in this case – “in the woods” – giving us a couple of brief moments of continuance like Ludmilla’s relationship with Bela but, again, it lasts only as long as Joseph Stalin’s empathy. The play takes us on an odyssey, leaping decades and borders and situations like various postcards arriving in our letterbox from a friend that we know is travelling but we are not sure where. And we are not sure he’s even a friend. And as on any voyage or holiday, we encounter things that mark us or change us as we go…then on we go.
Our Production – Design and Casting
This play begins on the slopes of a mountainside and never settles on flat easy terrain again. Mel Liertz (our extraordinary designer dealing with set and almost 60 costumes on an independent budget) and I have taken our approach to the play from that sense of physical destablisation and continuous movement, a world incapable of stasis where gravity is permanently at work. The story will eventually see a man tumbling from London Bridge and landing in a world where gravity no longer makes any sense at all, where an inanimate object can dream of being something else – a bird.
This play is about a slanting, pressing world, a world of bias, where the scales are always tipped one way or the other by unfair, sometimes unseen, sometimes all too clearly seen, forces. Hungary is in collapse and the best of its young minds follow the force of gravity and get out before the slide becomes terminal, but in the ‘free’ world of young socialist Russia, the slant is again in full force. To keep the Soviet machine in balance and its political scales even for “all the people, all the time”, pressure needs to be applied, artists’ free thought and speech needs to be weighed on the scale with the need for a collective vision. And in England 20 years later, and the rest of the free world today, we find we still have to tow the “paper’s line” or the company line, the accepted version or perspective, because our capacity to compromise pays our bills. If we think too differently, if we resist and debunk too much, there will happily be someone else who is willing to fill our vacated space in the capitalist cycle.
Bela Veracek, a Hungarian cartoonist, ends each scene here in a contradictory state of defeat and victory, either sliding down the hill with the inevitable force of gravity or driving up it in defiance of the rules. In a play subtitled ‘Scenes of Overcoming’ we wanted to explore a tottering, unwieldy space that throws the actor up on the mountainside to see if they can stay upright and resist the urge to get off before they have ‘overcome’ their impediments or perhaps be ‘overcome’ by them. “There is no safe place. There never was one”, says the man who has been running like a coward across Europe from the latest danger while being a very great danger himself.
Through this play’s almost 60 characters and 12 different settings, there is a more extraordinary thread than I at first perceived, (and a bit like Brecht perhaps, against his own better instincts) a more successful attempt at ‘entertaining’ us, pursuing a theme and ‘making sense’ than Barker might give himself credit for. Indeed, he might hate himself for it. I could be wrong, the audience will be the judge of that, but this story both sickens and inspires.
With a very small cast of 8 people playing this vast population, a set of relationships is established with the ‘actor’ as much as the character and the play’s central focus – art and its responsibilities – is made flesh by the presence of the brave group of people telling the story. The cast has begun to think of this story as a haunting - a series of ghosts, different people, different voices, from different worlds, but the same ensemble of faces relentlessly pursue these artists, Bela and Grigor, on an odyssey that spans continental Europe and seven decades of the 20th Century.
In our story, Danielle King (whom, if Barker met, he would write plays for, as would Shakespeare) holds a gun to the back of Bela’s head in the opening minutes, absolutely ready to shoot on the order, and she is still willing to kill him 60 years later in another costume, another character and another time, if it would help him escape the pain. But the fact is she wants him to go on, if he is willing to, if he can bear it, because if he has something to say he should say it, if there is someone to blame - blame them, get on with it. In fact, she is a gatekeeper to him, a protector and cipher to his work or his presence again and again in the story. The actor, Danielle King keeps meeting the actor, Akos Armont, in a range of masks but always as a gatekeeper to his work or his life (as a soldier, a customs officer, an engineer, an editor, a doctor). “No ‘ard feelings mate”, she says as he escapes another near death experience. She’ll be back though.
If Danielle holds the gun, Bryce Youngman, again and again, is the bullet itself. One of our country’s most passionate and practical sharers of poetry, who has introduced the value of poetry to thousands of Australian school kids, Bryce becomes a Captain who finds Bela’s naked body in the field and rests his life on his ability to improvise a poem, to prove his value to the state, preferably in the “heroic national style”; and that ghost returns when Bryce becomes a secret servicemen surveilling him in Russia, eventually perhaps shooting his family dead in the woods; as a WWII Airmen throwing his art to the wolves at an RAF base; even as a wealthy patron bringing him to safety in England before explaining the “provisions of the Special Powers Act” which can land him in a concentration camp if he thinks too freely, and as Mik, the new young cartoonist here to finally put the old man out of his misery. To Akos, Bryce is a loaded weapon.
Amy Usherwood, (like Akos, equally brave, articulate in the face of this play’s savagery), starts the story as the peasant woman in terror at Bela’s attempt to rape her, his act of “petty theft”, stealing “two minutes of herself, perhaps less”. She returns again and again as the face of his desires, always hurried, always futile, “you can’t keep the bombs off, with my little drop of love”, and it is through her eyes that we see the flawed masculinity, selfishness, violence and sexual preoccupation of the artist. It is her recurring presence that ensures he remains an anti-hero in our eyes, and aware of it himself – “my bad self”, “I’m not a good man”, telling “lies and stuff”, taking rather than giving. Her passionate Bolshevik artist Ludmilla would like to kiss his lips, to commune with him, but he’d prefer her breasts; her Tea Lady will stay above ground during the London blitz to steal a moment with him, he is happy to oblige. it is always risk and danger for her, sex on death row, on a mountain side in Romania, Stalin’s Kremlin, in London beneath the Luftwaffe. Even Amy’s Tail-end Gunner, Kenny, fighting for the RAF, is on death row, fighting for Bela’s attention, reminding him that actions have consequences and that there needs to be a reason, “a little bit of truth to go with, see”. She is another ghost in his machine.
Monroe Reimers (an actor I have admired for a long time and am thrilled to finally work with) recurs in Bela’s journey as his object of trust, of age, experience and artistry, a mentor perhaps – as the head of his art institute teaching Bela how to paint, the leader of a committee of free Russian artists encouraging Bela to become better and ‘freer’, as a gardener in a Moscow housing estate creating a devoted work of art for his country – but each of these gentle men are Bela’s chief sources of betrayal. They are idolaters, masters whom the apprentice has to kick to get rid of, artists who impose their agendas on him. It is only Monroe’s tired, too-experienced water police-officer who finally delivers Bela a piece of advice he can take – if you jump in my river, “I ain’t pulling you out”, Monroe says. “Thank Christ for a good man”, replies Bela and jumps.
And Angela Bauer (with whom I have been working for 20 years now and is as precise as Barker requires of actors) haunts both Grigor and Bela in the play – as a Hungarian Red Soldier telling the pacifist artist Grigor the value of killing in this world and the need to maintain sanity amid the chaos, before returning as his talkative nude life model, driving him mad with her own sense of perspective, until she is nursing his real madness over 50 years later, taking bets from her nursing staff on his ability to perform a miracle with a hospital pisspan. She returns multiple times to tempt Bela to the brink as well – handing him a weapon to make his first and only killing in the war; notating his thought crimes in a basement beneath the Kremlin, tempting his temper to say too much; carrying the warrant for his imprisonment for insulting Churchill and just willing him to go too far, to tempt her power to destroy him. Finally, it is her young recruit, PC Joan of the Metropolitan River Police with her shallow reading of psychology that tempts him that step too far - off Tower Bridge into the Thames.
It is almost a ‘myth’ that Barker has written - his writing is all about his incredible control of language and vernacular – but strangely, like any myth, it could almost play without words, purely as a series of images, tableaux. An artist seeks a safe place in the world but “there is no safe place” and everywhere he runs he is met with suppression and failure and coercion, but equally with selfless help and sacrifice to save him. It is like the stations of a cross – he falls, he gets up, he struggles on, but without ever earning our worship, perhaps not even our respect. But we go with him into a series of situations that each provoke a picture from him, a portrait of the human race at work. He uses pictures because he has lost his trust in words – he was actually a poet before he was an artist but words are broken for him in the first scene, he will “never write a poem again”, “I hate words” and that becomes the engine of his life, especially with relation to wordsmiths, to the press, pouring a river of lies, a “curtain of piss” from their newspaper inking machines, baffling and misleading the world. It’s all fake news to Bela Veracek. His cartoons use the minimum number of words and let the picture do the hard work – “touch the truth…like the frog’s legs on the bench, I twitch ‘em, shock the bastards into life”.
The Austro-Hungarian campaign – WW1
“Combat exhaustion under mountain conditions is incomprehensible to anyone who has not suffered through such an experience,” said a young soldier who survived the infamous Hungarian campaign in the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania and Romania in WW1. Total losses for the Hungarian army in the Carpathian Mountains exceeded 75 percent. Habsburg (Austro-Hungarian) troops routinely lacked all basic necessities. Food supplies often did not reach the front at all, and when they did, they were frozen solid. Heavy rainfall, blinding snowstorms, and icy river crossings left the soldiers’ uniforms frozen to their bodies. Racketeers had provided many forces with boots that had paper or cardboard soles, which quickly rendered them unusable.
The Habsburg Supreme Command displayed a profound ignorance of these conditions throughout the war—an utter failure to recognize the realities of mountain warfare. Exhausted, many of the troops committed suicide by shooting themselves or exposing themselves to enemy fire. Tens of thousands of horses, too - critical to the Habsburg supply chain - succumbed to overexertion and starvation. Horse-meat was the primary food source for soldiers.
Conditions were especially terrifying at night, with shrieking wind, impenetrable darkness, mysterious mountain sounds, and ice that caked eyelids shut. Night time temperatures dropped to as low as -25°F, ensuring that many men left exposed to the elements would not survive until morning. Troops were frequently forced to march in the darkness for hours on end. They would sometimes see shadows swiftly traversing their positions into no man’s land and shortly thereafter hear screaming as wolves made a meal of wounded men. No relief was possible.
Another fatal flaw of the first Carpathian Mountain offensive was the uncoordinated Austro-Hungarian attack efforts. Individual units would attack single enemy positions without communicating with their neighbouring units in any way. Hungarians would attack other Hungarians as a result. Entire regiments simply got lost walking in the mountains, deserting or fighting pitch battles with anyone passing their position, regardless of nationality, resulting in catastrophic losses. It was Golgotha. Other regiments became mutineers, joining the communist cause and slaughtering their own. Hungary would descend into civil war in 1919, with the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy broken apart and Socialist leadership taking over Hungary. The once enormous nation was shattered into many different territories and took on enormous reparations for their involvement in the war. The first scene of No End of Blame expresses this chaos through two Hungarian soldiers facing summary execution from three other Hungarian soldiers for suspected homosexuality, followed by three communist Hungarian separatists taking those soldiers prisoner and ordering their execution. Hungary devoured itself in WW1.
Although the disastrous Carpathian Winter War has received scant historical attention over the past century, it was critically important to the First World War’s Eastern Front. It stands as a lasting reminder of how unimaginably brutal wartime conditions can be.
Howard Barker and history – The Wrestling School
Howard Barker’s play opens in the midst of an existential horror, in the Romanian Carpathian Mountains, with an 18-year-old Field Telegraphist, conscripted in his teenage years into one of the worst military campaigns in human history, the WW1 Eastern front, holding a petrified local village woman at gunpoint so he can sketch her naked body, screaming at her to stand still because he is sick of drawing naked men, while his friend, a 20-year-old Brigade Telephonist prepares to rape her. The two men fight and the peasant woman escapes. Two sets of Hungarian soldiers - all fighting for the same army - then consume each other over the nakedness of Bela Veracek, the poet-would-be-rapist standing in front of us on a stage.
This portrait of an unnamed woman in a completely unstructured, leaderless, orderless conflict zone, on the side of a mountain, as distressed as an animal, followed in turn by the brutal violation of her naked predator by others is abject and utterly bleak, made more so by the diffidence and ‘cleverness’ of Barker’s witty dialogue and tone of inhumane rebuke and reposte. It is catastrophe and we are left with as complete an anti-hero as a play could muster. He – Bela Veracek - would have “done it”, he admits, “My Bad Self”. And from there, a story of overcoming begins.
Barker is an historian, and takes many of his plays from historical sources, but always in order to tell histories that don’t appear elsewhere, that glance upward from the very bottom of the history pit at the ‘great’ events that have defined an epoch. His are the unwritten histories. We all know men suffered in war - what about the ‘unknown’ village women raped on mountainsides? What about the prostitutes surviving through corrupt self-preservation? What about the artists forgoing what they believe to keep their brains from being blown against walls? Barker makes us look at history through little basement windows at the seemingly unimportant plights of unknown individuals in order to get a truer portrait of who we were in a century like the 20th Century – one that the human race will always remember with shame and yet one that we are working hard to outdo for depravity in the 21st. The big historical giants sit only in the background casting their shadow over the story.
Barker calls his style, “theatre of catastrophe”, an uncompromising form developed with his company “The Wrestling School’. His characters routinely begin their journeys in a state of total loss, total despair and disdain, stripped of everything, held down on the canvas, pinned, their morality absent or irrelevant, so that we can watch them wrestle themselves back to their feet, empty handed, robbed of any hope of ‘liking’ them or ‘identifying’ with them. From there they wrestle with what a human being may or may not do, or should do. What sort of human being might they become? How may they ‘overcome’?
Every scene is about outlasting or surmounting something impossible, including oneself.
Once that mountain hell ends, a very different play begins, an astonishingly bold, dramaturgically challenging and powerfully spoken drama about the value of art, the silencing of truth by government regimes and the place of provocation and free thought in a free society.
This play was written for 11 to 12 men and only 2 to 3 women in very small roles. We believe, as with all classic plays that have come from the patriarchal tradition, that this play is much more interesting and affecting with men and women sharing the storytelling.
We wrestled at length in our rehearsal room, made up equally of men and women, with how the play might begin, with what sense might be made of it. We debated long and passionately about whether to censor Barker and remove the treatment of the Romanian peasant woman, and other moments of the central character’s sexualisation of women. Having programmed the play for its many varied riches, I continued to baulk at these aspects and lost my nerve many times, but the exceptional cast and creative team were immensely sensitive and detailed in their investigation of everything we were doing and they kept us going, searching forward. And we reached an agreed and unanimous decision that the play is a very powerful discussion of free speech and censorship, and that to sanitise Bela’s behaviour would only serve to make his journey purely inspiring and worthy. He would become a wholesome victim of oppressive regimes. If we tried to cover up his verbal ugliness, it would mean he could ‘blame’ with impunity, being blameless himself, where in fact, he is a ‘blamer’ who deserves as good as he gives. It is an extraordinary story, so filled with passionate protest and intelligence and with Bela at the centre of it, he would quickly become a saint, someone we feel sorry for. And this is not the story of someone we feel sorry for. This is the story of how hard it is to feel sorry for anyone. This is about ‘blame’, no end of it, this is about pointing the finger, this is about hypocrisy and how the best things and the worst things coalesce in us all to make a human life.
Barker does not need us to like him or to understand him, in fact he tells us he does not care less if we understand him or discover a neat package of meaning in his work, all the things we traditionally and reflexively expect and ‘need’ in a play and it’s hero. For Barker it is irrelevant how we feel about him or his characters – it is raw tragedy and human comedy, in the Greek sense – it is there to make us argue and to feel the sharp edges of things that are unfortunately fundamental to who we are. This is a “life drawing”, with every shadow and flabby or scarred piece of tissue exposed and examined, and like so many ‘geniuses’, artists and inspiring thinkers, Bela Veracek is corrupt and all too flawed. The courage and sensitivity of the cast in exploring the play, a play they have engaged so rawly and honestly with, has been an incredibly humbling experience, particularly Amy and Akos who endure the opening ordeal with no clothes on and nowhere to hide, with such unflinching spirit and trust in each other, their small ensemble and the play itself. As does Angela in bringing to still life the corrupt, wartime racketeer-loving survivor, Stella, a model in the Budapest art institute. But the entire group has been equally stripped by the intensity of this story and they have worked so hard and passionately in telling it. I have never worked with a smarter or more galvanised cast.
The Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in 1917 while championing freedom and one of their first decisions was to limit free speech through harsh censorship. In early November 1917, the Soviet government signed the Decree on Press, vetting all publications and prohibiting any “bourgeois” articles criticizing the Bolsheviks’ authority. Peasants were a target of the new journalism in Russia and a desire get newspapers into peasants’ hands meant strict controls on what ‘the people’ would be reading.
As the years passed political censorship grew stronger, reaching its peak under Joseph Stalin’s reign, and becoming a central tenet of Stalin’s bloody Great Purge. After his death the state relaxed its stance slightly but censorship remained very strong until Mikhail Gorbachev declared glasnost in the late 1980s.
By 1921, the young Soviet government created the Glavlit (General Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press) which for decades remained the main instrument of controlling literature. Glavlit’s censors decided if a book or image was published in the USSR, or if it was banned. As a result, Soviet citizens could not read many works of literature, some of which are now regarded as classics - including Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita and Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, not to mention the works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn who criticized the Soviet regime. The circulation of books written by émigré writers who had fled Soviet Russia were, of course, prohibited - robbing the public of Ivan Bunin and Vladimir Nabokov’s novels, to name just two.
Nevertheless, the Soviet government wasn’t able to completely eradicate literature it deemed “dangerous.” Through the ages, people opposing censorship have circulated handmade copies of banned literature and imagery. In the Soviet Union, this was called samizdat (self-published) and scores of illegal books were enjoyed by readers as a result.
Theatre is akin to cartooning, especially independent theatre. Cartoons are not celebrated in large spaces, or memorialized in galleries (an occasional collection perhaps or a google search) but their true function is to bite at one exact moment - they do not survive or leave a lasting, memorialized mark, nothing we can see, nothing we can watch again. Cartoons and theatre have a birth date and a used by date, then time decays them. And indie theatre is (relatively) cheap and quick. Its equation is: minimum time, maximum struggle, effort, personal subsidy and sacrifice, little support and so little commercial result. In fact, every show in the powerful, passionate, brave independent theatre sector is a commercial failure by any measurable standard. Each ensuing show is therefore a miracle of goodwill and desire. Like cartoons in the daily rag, they very quickly become fish and chip wrapping, and even that practical use is gone. You can’t wrap your chips in a blog.
And yet we keep doing it. This play, more than any I have ever worked on, has made me think about that conviction and that struggle, and about what actors and designers and theatre-makers – artists in general - give of themselves. I have no remarkable point to make in saying this – and am well aware that artists are not nurses in emergency wards or police, soldiers or fire people under physical threat or even cleaners making our patch liveable – but I feel it very powerfully and need to say it:
Thank you to the cast, crew, creatives, office team and sponsors for all the risk, for scratching another passionate little drawing on the granite ball – and to the partners and significant others who further subsidise it. And thanks above all to Cathy Wilcox, David Pope and Nicholas Harding for sharing their incomparable artistry with us. Sharing a space briefly with them in the rehearsal room, with actors and designers standing/sitting around them, dipping at their wells, exchanging their different talents and visions with such respect and mutual warmth, was about as good a reason to carry on with a theatre company as I can think of. The actors aren’t paid enough to do the work, the artists are not paid enough to draw the work, the audience are not paying enough for a ticket to watch the work – but the work is necessary, for all of us, not just this work specifically, all of it, by all of us. ‘The arts’ is an essential industry. We must stay mad / barmy so the rest of the population don’t have to.
"Akos Armont is the charismatic and passionate lead, dependably convincing even though Bela’s emotions seem always to be operatic in scale. Supporting roles are all vibrantly rendered, with Danielle King especially memorable in a range of small parts, and highly effective as newspaper editor Stringer, delivering a tremendous sense of poignancy at show’s end."
"Presented by Sport for Jove and directed by Damien Ryan (the only independent company in Sydney who could take this on and make a go of it, I think), this production is strongly performed and skilfully mounted."
Rehearsal Photography by Robert Catto | Production Photography by Kate Williams
Akos Armont | Bela
Amy Usherwood | Ludmilla and Various
Angela Bauer | Stella and Various
Bryce Youngman | Various
Danielle King | Stringer and Various
Lizzie Schebesta | Illona
Monroe Reimers | 1st Comrade and Various
Sam O'Sullivan | Grigor
Alistair Wallace | Sound Designer
Cathy Wilcox | Cartoonist
Damien Ryan | Director
David Pope | Cartoonist
Ester Karuso-Thurn | Design Assistant
Fausto Brusamolino | Lighting Designer
Howard Barker | Playwright
Maria Spataro | Stage Manager
Martin Quinn | Assistant Stage Manager
Melanie Liertz | Designer
Nicholas Harding | Artist
Richard Hilliar | Assistant Director