"Barker's History Speaks Modern Truths"
by Alison Goldie for remotegoat on 25/10/17

In the chilly futuristic landscape of the Isle of Dogs, Space Theatre is a haven of warmth and humanity, gamely presenting an eclectic mix of revivals and new writing in an atmospheric Victorian church.

Currently showing is The Castle by Howard Barker, which whisks us back to The Crusades of the twelfth century and a grim, rain-soaked Britain where conflict is kicking off. After seven years in the Holy Land, a group of soldiers return home to find that the ‘little paradise’ they expected to welcome them is now a matriarchy, run by the women left behind, who have taken each other as lovers, and used one old, but still fertile, man to impregnate them. The aptly named Stucley (Anthony Cozens), a knight and local governor, is horrified to find his wife Ann (Shelley Davenport) in a relationship with a very spiky witch, Skinner (Kate Tulloch) and worshipping at the shrine of the vagina (more graphically named here). The men begin an attempt to regain control, of the land, the religion and the women: the story that ensues reveals their blundering efforts.

The soldiers have brought back with them a very skillful prisoner of war, a Muslim named Krak (Chris Kyriacou), who as an engineer and mathematician is pressed into service to build a huge phallic castle (echoes of the ludicrous towers being thrown up in London as we speak). Krak tries to keep his dignity whilst all around him are losing theirs – he doesn’t manage it. The chief builder does not inspire confidence, constantly looking upwards as he fears his own building falling on him. Men and women are stupid or lying or self-serving or all three at once. Stucley rants and raves, showing the pointlessness of anger, whilst attempting to build a Christianity that suits his philosophy, with the help of a malleable cleric who is only too happy to rewrite the Bible. Meanwhile Ann’s heterosexual desires are revived by the reappearance of men, and the disappointed and furious Skinner, commits murder and is given one of the grossest (and funniest) punishments to be seen in the theatre.

This is one of those stories in which no one comes out well, and yet, in its jaundiced attitude towards humanity is weirdly, somehow comforting. Barker seems to be saying that if we’re all a mess, and struggling to find the answers, then so be it – we just have to do the best we can. The Castle is written in a heightened poetic style with liberal use of Anglo Saxon obscenities, and is a timeless tale, written in 1985 but completely applicable today.

The production is basic, with well-paced direction and some stand out performances, particularly Kate Tulloch as Skinner who is a powerful firebrand until she is subdued, then becomes poignant, and finally, a wry philosopher: Tulloch manages these gear-shifts with great flair and is never less than compelling.

An invigorating and brain-stirring show, well worth the trip to the outer reaches of East London.

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