Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:
In the depths of the countryside, there is a bottomless well guarded by a poet. Citizens pay him to throw themselves in – or, if they choose not to commit suicide, pay again to leave. A local gentlewoman is a frequent visitor, who pays over and over but always chooses not to lead to her death. When her husband visits and asks the poet to push her in, the well’s guard spirals into musing about his and the other characters’ place in the world. But mostly his own.
Howard Barker’s In The Depths of Dead Love is presented in a minimalist design by Justin Nardella, which forms the most interesting part of this exercise in self-indulgent solipsism. The well is revealed when a large, discoloured metal lid is winched above the stage, where it remains, reflecting the light as if the moon. Underneath it, the poor characters tread around in rags while Stella Gonet’s melancholy visitor and her husband (William Chubb) are rather more well dressed.
That is about as deep as the investigation into the psyche of these characters goes. Barker, himself a poet, is more content to investigate the poet/well master’s inner thought processes. James Clyde strides around the stage, berating his housekeeper (Jane Bertish) but mainly mulling over the choice of words to describe how he has been asked to force Gonet to fall into the well. Is ‘shove’ acceptable? How about ‘push’, or ‘topple’?
Maybe poets may care about the quest for the perfect word. Watching one articulate such a quest does not make for compelling viewing. There is no attempt to really explore why Gonet’s character is repeatedly compelled to visit the well, why she never jumps, why her husband wants her gone. There is dialogue about such matters, but Barker is more concerned with the language, and to get Clyde’s poet to talk himself into falling in love with the visitor. By the end, that bottomless well, and the charge incurred for using it, seem remarkably appealing.
Much has been made of Barker’s choice to supposedly set his tale in ancient China (although the location is never mentioned in the text, all the characters have Chinese-like names). Protests outside the theatre objected to the use of “yellowface”, or casting white actors in Asian roles. Seeing the play itself, it appears that, while the objections to a wider lack of roles for East Asian actors are certainly valid, and the thought of white actors further reducing those meagre casting availabilities equally so, targeting this production for those reasons feels misplaced.
These characters are not Chinese, but reflections of an introspective piece by Barker (first presented as a 2014 radio production starring Francesca Annis and Richard E. Grant). Chubb, Clyde and Bertish have a history of working with the playwright’s Wrestling School theatre company. The structure of the folk tale could be transposed to any culture with a history of allegorical storytelling. So why a group of middle-class, middle-aged white people feel the need to misappropriate East Asian names is a greater concern.
When Brecht, Beckett and many others have shown that crafting theatrical parables does not need such geographic and cultural choices, that Barker has chosen to treat China as a means of applying a fantastical veneer is disheartening. But a better response than protesting this production would be to attend other, better theatre. Theatre that is concerned about feelings and emotion, which speaks to all and does not bore audiences. Theatre with characters that actors of East Asian origin can be proud of.
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