I went to see Victory at the Arcola last week. This feast of a play is an early piece from that crusty bastion of British writing Howard Barker. Later Barker texts are seen to be a bit dry and preachy but nothing could be moister than this incredible play which swims around in the salacious possibilities of the English language with not a thought for the sparse contemporary lexicon which seems to restrict modern writers to the children’s paddling pool.
Despite the present vogue for more visually centric theatre, the health of new writing in this country is currently fighting fit. With new work by Ali Taylor and Adam Brace it is not as though we are wanting for topical or beautiful work but there is a richness missing in these pieces, a minimalism and trimness which seems prevalent within most current writing. Maybe this is why August: Osage County was such a huge hit at the National (this is the last time I mention it I promise) – audiences are gasping for big emotional bloody pieces which delight in using language as a weapon and a lover; words which are as nourishing as food. Tracy Lett’s play provides this on the surface but at closer inspection is as empty as the feeling one gets from eating McDonald’s – at first it’s deliciously fulfilling but given 15 minutes to sit and it disintegrates like the jumbled mass of limbs it is.
As audience members we seem to be starved of a diversity of language, the unwitting victims of a fear of poetry and verbosity. We definitely don’t want long winded tomes, but why is it that our new writers are so thin in their vocabulary? Is it because they are reflecting a more colloquial way of speaking? We must have spoken in pretty much the same way in 1983 when Victory was written although it is true that Barker set the play in the Restoration allowing for a floridity of spoken English that isn’t prevalent today. His other great play Scenes from an Execution is also set in the past, so maybe it is in this act of taking on the more richly expressed language of our ancestors that Barker was able to relive the glory of a more elegant time. Neither of these plays are in anyway historical pieces however, neither adhering to the spoken rules of their time, both just reveling in the possibility of a breadth of visceral animalistic but somehow genteel crudity which is absent from our sterile PC ridden present. Do we then need to write in the past to enrich the present?
I don’t think that we do. Sarah Kane was a writer who didn’t go back to history to tackle the now. She wasn’t afraid to be bloody, vicious, witty, complicated and conflicting and she wrote in short sometimes clipped sentences, but above all she married this minimalist form with a lyricism and poetry which seems to be lacking in a lot of modern work. We need more exploration with words as well as focus on structure and content. Am I wrong? Please let me know if you think that there are rich writers out there. The happy shock I felt when presented with Victory makes me think we’re all pretty malnourished. More Tudor feasts less 21st century fast food please.