The reasons for which we go to the theatre are as diverse as they are controversial. Do we go to be entertained or educated? Provoked or placated? Alienated or brought together? Of course, each era, each critic, each play write, perhaps even each individual production of each play, would put forth a different answer. With his ‘Theatre of Catastrophe,’ Howard Barker, ‘ takes as [his] first principle the idea that art is not digestible. Rather, it is an irritant in consciousness, like the grain of sand in the oyster’s gut…’. The Wrestling School’s production of his most recent piece, the wonderfully enigmatic Hurts Given and Received, certainly did manage to perturb – indeed, two days after having first seen Hurts, I find it’s still sitting somewhat anxiously in the forefront of my mind – but, I’d also say that it managed to action most of those other verbs upon me as well.
There isn’t much of a story to Hurts Given and Received. Quite simply, poet Bach takes his potential for genius so seriously that he abuses and alienates his friends, lovers, and neighbours in his attempts to put pencil to paper in order to bless the world with the beauty of his poetry. Each person he encounters is all too eager to obey his tyrannical commands, that is until he meets the mad local school girl, Sadovee 1. After sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively sacrificing everyone he encounters to his poetry, Bach finds himself sacrificed to the cause as well; paralyzed, dumb, strapped to a wooden board, and publicly drooling, Bach is suddenly able to craft the most awe-inspiring poetry of his career via the interpretations of his school girl’s elder sister, Sadovee 2 (who ‘caught the poetry’ upon Bach’s injury!). And the hypocritical public – hitherto disapproving – are now vultures waiting to swoop in and consume his work as soon as each page is finished.
On the surface, Hurts amounts to an intensely performed, wittily written, wryly funny play. There were quite a few hilarious lines, but even more titters of nervous laughter, as the audience grew more and more uncomfortable. Extended full frontal nudity, death, breached taboos, tears… There was plenty there to agitate an audience. Then, there are the games Barker plays with genre. There are clear flirtations with the tragic which border on the absurd in the form of the (beautiful) stilted, poetic language in which Hurts is written, and dramatic, histrionic encounters between characters. The ending, however, eludes any possibility for catharsis. And while he was flawed to the point of parody, I’m not sure that Bach can be said to have had a tragic flaw. For, while his selfish cruelty may have led to his downfall, it also led to his greatest success.
What I found most striking about this play, however, is its central question of art: what is it for? Who is it for? What are we willing to sacrifice for it when it’s good? Can it be good if it’s ‘immoral’ or inhuman? These questions are posed and explored, but never resolved; the piece itself does not preach to its audience, nor does it attempt to impose any sort of opinion. Through my reactions to it, however, I’ve learned a thing or two about mine. My reluctance to label Bach’s prominent, reprehensible flaws as tragic is telling. So is the sigh of relief I breathed when a kind-hearted citizen ‘caught the poetry,’ and became Bach’s new slave-scribe. ‘Exciting new poetry!’ my heart silently exclaimed, as I witnessed two men embark on a symbolic journey of pain not two metres before my eyes. But my very delight in the complex piece of art that is Hurts itself makes it impossible for me to be genuinely sorry.
Hurts Given and Received is as playful and amusing as it is captivating and provocative. It left me both reeling and delighted. While your reasons for going to the theatre are almost certainly different to mine (as will be your reactions to the play), in going to Hurts Given and Received (and you really should go!), I suspect that you too will leave with a little something more than you had when entered the theatre; surely that’s a reason we can all get behind.
Hurts Given and Received is directed by Gerrard McArthur, and it is on at the Riverside Studios until Sunday 9th May 2010. For tickets and information, please visit www.riversidestudios.co.uk. For more information about Howard Barker and the Wrestling School: www.thewrestlingschool.co.uk