Red Line Productions’ “exhilarating new interpretation” of Howard Barker’s series of short plays, The Possibilities, was, in fact, exhausting. The opening playlet was The Weaver’s Ecstasy at the Discovery of New Colour, a scene of weavers trying to maintain normality and keep focused on their business as a siege closes in on their city and a blanket of blood seeps toward their door. Loud screeches, the sounds of gunfire and the panic-stricken wife of the weaver darting to and fro manically as crimson fabric creeps across the stage created a crackling atmosphere. However, once the actors had hit that high note it seemed impossible to recreate the excitement in any of the other scenes.
The purpose of Howard Barker’s work is to divide the audience and provoke an individual response, denying the catharsis of a shared experience and leaving moral questions unresolved. However, although I found the scenes brutal in their content, I also found many of them difficult to follow and, frankly, found myself foreseeing the grisly resolution and patiently waiting for all the shouting to be over. The direction seemed to lack purpose and to focus on caricaturing the characters in each scene – for example a sadistic character in a position of power would roll their ‘r’s and arch their eyebrows sarcastically. This was my main gripe with the piece – it didn’t get across whether it was supposed to be comic or tragic, and wasn’t played with enough subtlety to really get across either. As one of my fellow audience members commented, “it was just shouting throughout”, there was no gradual build-up of tension.
However, there were a few moments that I did find some light relief in, for example Only Some Can Take the Strain, which told the story of a bookseller of subversive texts who is wary of selling valuable knowledge to the wrong sort of buyer. The actors created a sinister atmosphere of absolute state control, but still managed to play up the comic moments, which contrasted with the rest of the material and brought to the fore actors who had so far played only minor parts. It may not have been the most deep and purposeful of the playlets but it most suited the caricaturing style of direction. Reasons for The Fall of Emperors also stood out because of the sensitive and vulnerable portrayal of an emperor (played by Jonathan Butler) brought low by the suffering his decisions have caused, however the comic portrayal of the peasant robbed the scene of its gravity.
The piece had its merits – the costumes were lovely and the simple set of concrete blocks scored with a bright red zigzag made a striking visual statement. The sparing use of props and the details such as the blanket of blood were affecting. However, I felt that the piece overall did not get across any sense of The Possibilities as the extreme situations that were being recreated lacked weight and pathos. I felt that the choreographed moments added nothing to the piece, and that the choice of contemporary music such as PJ Harvey, Regina Speckor and Queens of The Stone Age, while all musicians that I enjoy, gave the piece an amateur edge. Overall, although there were some moments that proved that some of the actors could act, overall it felt like the choices in the direction had turned those skills instead into a competition to be noticed for having the loudest voice or most twisted grimace.
The Possibilities is playing at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 19th November. For more information and tickets, see the Tristan Bates Theatre website here.