Shaw Festival’s Victory strips some of the urgency from Howard Barker’s incredible text

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By Howard Barker. Directed by Tim Carroll. Until Oct. 12 at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, 10 Queen’s Parade, Niagara-on-the-Lake. or 1-800-511-7429

Howard Barker’s Victory is a hard play and the Shaw Festival really wants you to know that.

It might take place in a period familiar to classic theatre fans — 17th-century England — but the production’s web page lists a 17-plus age recommendation and a trigger warning saying it’s “not for the squeamish,” and the marketing has emphasized its offensive language and sexuality.

The media performance this week also featured an in-person introduction by Tim Carroll, artistic director and director of the production, issuing one more caution about its adult subject matter and a few rounds of congratulations to the audience for braving such upsetting territory.

Barker, considered in Europe to be one of Britain’s best living artistic thinkers and playwrights (or best playwright full stop), is so allergic to theatrical conventions that he created his own genre, “Theatre of Catastrophe,” which his U.K. theatre company the Wrestling School says “pursues to the boundaries of the tolerable and explodes them,” refusing to cater to the audience’s comfort and instead “throwing their sense of experience into flux.”

Watching Carroll’s production of Victory, which follows the aftermath of the British civil war as King Charles II returns to the throne from exile, is likely the most unsettling experience in a Shaw Festival season for some time, but not for the reasons that the warnings are so concerned about.

The actual shock content of literal sex, blood, excrement, bones, bodily harm and swearing feels somewhat restrained: designer Rachel Forbes’s skeletal creations are subtle;members of Charles’s court throw objects at the corpse of enemy leader Bradshaw offstage and though there are several instances of pants-dropping, Carroll’s staging keeps it remarkably PG.

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What does send the senses reeling is Barker’s rejection of linear narrative storytelling techniques, emphasized by a few key elements of Carroll’s design.

We begin with Bradshaw’s widow (Martha Burns) as she tries to rescue her deceased husband’s remains from debasement, then Barker sends our attentions to a spiderweb of locations, characters, issues and motivations. Her son McConochie (Michael Man) adopts a Scottish accent to pursue his career as a surgeon; Ball (Tom Rooney), a cavalier who fought for the monarchy, loves and despises Bradshaw’s widow and says so in equal amounts of poetry and filth; Charles’ mistress Devonshire (Sara Topham) wields her sexual power in ways that expose her vulnerable and callous sides; and banker Hambro (Gray Powell) wields his own power over the British citizens, the very people he says he’s defending with the new system of capitalism.

McCamus as King Charles is a see-saw of extremes: childish tantrums and political speculation, self-abasement and unruly pomp, resenting his position and seeing it as a divine right. He’s practically a foil for Bradshaw, who similarly ebbs and flows in her determination to honour her husband but gets distracted, falling into an animallike relationship with the world in her lostness. But while Charles is fiery she is eternally monotone and, except for a few key moments, almost lifeless.

It’s impossible for a newcomer to Victory or to Barker to discern where the story is going because Barker gives us no signposts, nor do the actors and Carroll.

We’re wandering mentally just as the characters do across London. We also wander literally as we take our seats, across a barren Studio Theatre stage with no pre-set music and house lights uncomfortably bright and, in another moment to close the first act, through the halls of the building.

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Is it intentionally uncomfortable? Yes. Is this discomfort useful? That’s where Carroll’s production wavers for me. Its dragging pace strips the urgency from the text; and it’s incredible text, at once vile and lyrical, simultaneously hypnotizing and revolting in a way that is almost intoxicating, so much so that there’s a risk of having the experience wash over you without really taking it in.

It has one of the most impressive casts in recent memory (including Emily Lukasik, Patrick Galligan, Sanjay Talwar, Michael Man, Kiera Sangster and Shauna Thompson) and it’s no wonder talents like these are drawn to Barker, or why he’s such a revered name in British theatre.

He’s a challenge to produce and a challenge to watch, and therefore very rarely seen in Canada. But this might not be the biggest victory for champions who wish to make Barker a more mainstream name.

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Carly Maga is a Toronto-based theatre critic and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @RadioMaga



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