A lusty battalion of men comes home from the Crusades, only to fight a tougher war—a battle of the sexes. After all, it’s the fictitious 12th century in this hallucination of not-so-merry Olde England. Women are claiming new roles in defiance of the marauding menfolk, and paternal order must be restored. A new fortress-society will be built—reinforced with religious doctrine, mandatory allegiance to the phallus, and plenty of capital punishment. Let the moral tailspin begin!
The Castle, Howard Barker’s stark and sometimes funny 1985 drama, takes a long, dark view of gender and oppression, offering an epic tinged with neo-Marxist reflections on patriarchy (and perhaps Thatcherism). If you’re willing to fathom the depths of this bleak dramatist’s imagination—starting when the elevator descends four stories underground for an evening at Atlantic Stage 2—your strenuous viewing may be amply rewarded.
Barker, whose scathing and sardonic indictments of society helped redefine British drama in the 1970s and ’80s, steers away from conventional realism. As they speak, The Castle‘s warriors, priests, and villagers navigate through clouds of their own nonsensical thoughts, rarely articulated directly, even in their frequent addresses to the audience.
Admittedly, the drama can feel ponderous and hard to watch. As with some of the Potomac Theatre Project’s previous Barker stagings—this is its 10th annual New York presentation—this production, directed by Richard Romagnoli, doesn’t supply many theatrical outlets for the radical elements in the writing. The austere visuals—think body bags and burlap tunics—and dull stage tableaux don’t make it easier to take in the play’s verbal density.
But two high-wattage performances light up Barker’s elliptical psychologies with charge and nuance. As Stucley, a boyish knight who alternates between sweet talk and violent vulgarity, David Barlow embodies male insecurity and sexual frustration—underlining his contradictory impulses of control and fear. And Barker veteran Jan Maxwell delivers a transcendent performance as the witch Skinner, a victim who turns executioner in an exuberant reversal of political fortune. Her chilling final monologue transports Barker’s apocalyptic prophecy to new dimensions, unleashing a fury of desire and vengeance. When Maxwell howls for demolishing a rotten power structure, this collapsing 12th century suddenly feels a lot like our own.