No End of Blame – Howard Barker’s delightful accusations against all of us. (Theatre Review)
No End of Blame
Sport For Jove, Seymour Cntre
12 – 28 October, You can buy your tickets here.
Images: Kate Williams.
The central question Howard Barker and his protagonist struggle with in No End of Blame boils down to what art is and what is its role in our life. For Nietzsche (and most artists since him who are heavily burdened [joyfully?] by his influence) art carries the capability and responsibility of conveying the full weight of the philosopher’s ontological vision. Art is the art of truth telling, and the truth it tells is of a “Dionysian” (relating to the sensual, spontaneous and emotional aspects of human nature – which I would argue are all that exist really) comprehension of the world. Nietzsche would classify this as a tragic insight into a world of Becoming, a processual conception of reality in which the world is an incessant interplay of forces. In this light, the world has no objects, no “things.” Rather it is a series of events or interplays that never achieve equilibrium and never come to a resolution. This is a world of endless flux engaged with constantly incomplete, open ended experimentation which can only properly be understood through the rejection of oppositional thinking. Therefore, everything that can be said to exist is both what it is and what it is not. It contains its own refutation. Being created and being uncreated – the inherent nature of excess (that which is beyond definition or limitation) which reveals itself as truth. Is not a perfect example of this the recent episode of this Bill Leak’s cartoon depicting Aboriginal males as bad fathers? The right for freedom of speech has always been connected to the ability to confront power. Yet Bill Leak becomes an agent for those seeking to maintain an imbalance of power, who wish to hold onto their right to attack the poor and disenfranchised under the banner of “free speech.” For those of us who genuinely want to question power, we currently find ourselves on the back foot against the most powerful institutional brotherhood in the world – the elite white male – who has employed internet foot soldiers and our own arguments to wield a war of words to protect their right to capital and control the rest of us. Seeing No End of Blame in light of the Bill Leak 2016 episode reveals Howard Barkers point in its new, oppositional thinking.
However, this Nietzschean idea is only of value if consensus can exist, and here lies the problem as old as art itself. Art is essentially a local, immediate form of communication and it is inherently tied to anarchy. Art has been combined with product and celebrity on a mass scale to its disadvantage. The broader the audience tied to the appeal, the more art has to dilute its message. Surely the solution to Howard Barker’s protagonist is to reduce his work to “local.” Make him one of many. Have a cartoonist in every suburb producing images that question power. Perhaps the role of art is to replace war? Thousands of perspectives speaking out in images, poetry, stories and films challenging each other on every subject as we continue to eat, drink and merry. But here we come to the darker, undercurrent of Howard Barkers play – tied up with the “right to speak” is the “right to control” and repeatedly the deeply flawed Bela cites his “genius” as if it were a passport to an audience. Genius can’t be questioned. If you don’t agree, you are not smart enough to understand. “I guess I should warn you, if I turn out to be particularly clear, you’ve probably misunderstood what I said,” is the Alan Greenspan defence. If dilution rather than control is the answer to this form of power, then the best and most natural consequence to mass media ownership is to stop reading main stream news and get your news via social media, blogs and other disparate sources on the internet. Oh wait! We have that. When Bela ends up in an institution, facing a Camus-like suicide, it is because he is not being listened to, not because he has lost the right to speak. His claim to speak for the people is destroyed when he takes criticism personally.
So again, we are back at the point and purpose of art and its essential tie to truth. Wassily Kandinsky used his art to fight against what he called ‘materialism’ which he saw as marked by a faith in material reality, a belief in only the things of a physical presence, however due to a shaking of religion, science and morality, the realisation of inner meaning had begun to return. “Our minds, which are even now only just awakening after years of materialism, are infected with the despair of unbelief, of lack of purpose and ideal. The nightmare of materialism, which has turned the life of the universe into an evil, useless game, is not yet past; it holds the awakening soul still in its grip. Only a feeble light glimmers like a tiny star in a vast gulf of darkness.” (Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual.) Art is to maintain the light of the spirit, dispense with the reproduction of the appearances of the material world and evoke subtler, more refined emotions. As art developed along this path, it would eventually gain the strength to convey the experience of the “spiritual life,” the life to which “are belongs and of which she is one of the mightiest elements.” Art, like everything else in life, is defined as much by its opposition as its inspiration, and until a time when we understand it better, the artists needs to act, and know they will be refused – as everything is refuted and brought to its essential nothingness.
Much of this comes to the fore in Sport For Jove’s current production of No end of Blame. The questions regarding the point and purpose of art rise more to the fore than those of censorship, but they are tied by a contemporary refutation with which all those concerned with the question of art and free speech must engage. This is brought to the fore in the printed words of Damian Ryan who takes the (excellent) step of relating some of the thought process behind choices made in the development of this production in the program notes. Tying the action to Melanie Liertz’s great sloping stage gives a real sense of the precariousness of life we all live. All of us concerned with free speech (and art) are represented by the various groups Barker puts forward and all are mocked and ridiculed for our own good. Alistair Wallace’s sound booms out over the Seymour’s Reginald theatre, while large looming versions of Cathy Wilcox, David Pope and Nicholas Harding’s beautiful images take pride of place on an enormous scrap of paper beneath which actors play out life’s trauma’s like busy ants.
Damien Ryan’s assembled cast are well chosen and do a fine job with the complexity inherent in a Howard Barker text. Stand outs are Sam O’Sullivan as the tragic Grigor and Danielle King as various incarnations of an odd facilitator; a series of characters that remind us doors go both ways, and often provide access to that which we do not want or need, just as it has provided access for us. Hers is a clever series of roles, well cast and exciting to watch. But if Sport For Jove are anything, they are a superb facilitator of fine performance and No End of Blame is no exception to this. This is a well-executed, exciting production of an important and (typically) under represented Howard Barker text. Don’t miss it.