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Judith – A Parting from the Body, by Howard Barker

Thursday, 24 February, 2011

Barker’s Biblical Tale at the Cock Tavern

Barker's take on the Biblical tale of Judith

Judith – A Parting from the Body is a short, sharp and compelling literary composition based on the biblical Book of Judith. It stunningly chronicles the final hour in Judith’s plot to destroy the threat to the Jewish Land by taking the head, and heart, of the opposition’s leading general.

However, Barker’s portrayal of events veers away from the particulars of country or faith and focuses on the source of psychological struggle of the veteran culture: murder. This is a play that should be obligatory to anyone with pro-war tendencies because it exposes the truth of what damage can be done to the person wielding the axe rather than the one receiving it, shining a stark light on the personal ramifications of taking another life.

The piece was set in a barren and diminutive cell, which captured the audience not only in spirit but in space, with barely enough leg-room for a midget, let alone a master of war. The only adornment were three plaster cast heads, suspended on ropes, and a sword strapped up stage centre, ensuring our awareness of the only certainty of war, within its ancient origins, death. The walls were draped with grey cloth that suggested both a military presence, and a bleakness that complemented the lonely bed and chair.

Appropriately, we were initially introduced to a solitary man, the great general himself; an emotionless soul despite the weight of words and content with which Barker had blessed him. This tendency became understandable as the play progressed and the true consequence of leading in the killing-field became apparent; the inability to feel. Liam Smith, playing the late and biblically great Holofernes, filled his shoes with the liquidity of an unerupted volcano; outwardly stoic with a fiery cesspool bubbling inside.

Into the space enters Judith, with what appears to be her maid in tow, and an intriguing yet vague discourse ensues. Barker’s refusal to deal in specifics of the original tale creates an air of universality to this story that extends beyond the confines of time or continent. He also successfully blurs the barriers of class, with the maid, at moments, exhibiting more control than her superior, leading to occasional confusion over whose vendetta is being avenged. Judith, played by Catherine Cusack, appeared almost as twisted as the general himself. She engaged in Holofernes’ intellectualising of what should be an emotional matter with ease and their contorted cerebral compatibility became obvious until the bitter and brutal end.

All actors played their parts perfectly, packaging Barker’s perusal in a deliberate, yet fluid, presentation. Smith was as eerily tragic, as I imagine any appointed mass murderer to be. He reeked of self loathing, through his dialogue, his persona, and his final submissive reckoning at the hands of a woman. Cusack physically encapsulated the gentile nature of a lady and accurately portrayed  the tortured mind that her widowhood, war-weariness and wilder side endured. Barker, and his noble subject Cusack, hinted at a cruelty in women not possible in men, the ability to push life into the world and then viciously pull it out, carelessly destroying the very thing she had made; a beast that eats her offspring after birth.

Emmeline Prior, as the not so subservient maid in waiting, served as our protagonist for the event. She was the coherent voice in a convoluted cacophony of cerebral chaos. Her incredulous and humorous interjections were delivered with the wisdom and cockney-eyed conspiratorial wit comparable with one of Shakespeare’s fools. Prior’s performance was perfectly pitched and beautifully displayed the strength of character oft found in those that live in the fringes of society, as she picked up the pieces of the mess her superiors had made.

Good Night Out’s production is a worthy and well directed telling of Barker’s take on the Judith tale. This company engaged fully, both visually and physically, with the harsh realities of this war-torn world and proved that no one escapes a battle unscathed.

reviewed 15th February 2011

Performers: Catherine Cusack; Emmeline Prior; Liam Smith

Writer – Howard Barker; Director – Robyn Winfield Smith; Lighting – Richard Hillier; Sound – Nick Jones; Costume – Julia Berndt/Marika Gasparova; Movement – Lawrence Carmichael; Asst. Director – Hannah Tottenham; Props – Ami Crabb/Lucy Pace; Set – Robyn Winfield-Smith/Ben Hawkins/Robert Hudson Booth; Graphic Designer – Simon Hilton; Photography – Rocco Redondo; Stage Manager – Sammi Woollard; Asst. Stage Manager: Peter Carrington; Producer – Roxanne Peak-Payne/Adam Spreadbury-Maher

(c) Tracy Keeling 2011

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