I'm actually a couple of reviews behind, you may or may not be glad to hear. I've missed out The Reduced Shakespeare Company on the basis that I'd seen it before and really knew what I was expecting and would have struggled to motivate myself on reviewing what is essentially the same production as I saw in January 2004 [only with different actors]. Ok, I'll be honest - I had cocktail/fountain stories to tell instead and I never got round to writing a review. Equally Cristina's play, Etrangere, missed out on a review as I saw it on the evening after my fifth exam, hence I only just had time to see the play, never mind write a review. But now, with free time a plenty, The Fence was screaming out to be reviewed. Usual rules and, if you're wondering, I absolutely adore Jacobean drama...
Popular in mainland Europe and America Howard Barker's plays have not reached the same level of success in the UK. The Fence, then, is a bold collabaration between The Wrestling School, the company which was set up in 1988 as a focus for Barker's work as both writer and director, and a clutch of British theatres. Whilst admirable in its ideas and some of its experimentation, one cannot help but feel that the production is curiously lacking at its heart, something which all the conceptual gilding cannot ultimately disguise.
Set in a world initially dominated by a giant fence which seperates the haves from the have-nots, the elite from the "thieves" as the characters express it, The Fence settles around the journey of blind Photo as he learns who he is and the reality of the world around him. When we first meet him, at the funeral of his aunt's third husband, Photo is 15 (and prodigously gifted he notes). He quickly reveals that he is sleeping with his 'aunt' - for he has been adopted. Minutes later his aunt will reveal to her fourth husband that she is indeed not Photo's aunt. She is in fact his mother. Thus, as the play unravels, it comes to explore both physical boundaries of a divided nation and the social bounadaries within it. Ultimately both types give way to internal ones. Life and death. Individual and ruler. Seeing and blindness. Sanity and madness. How are these boundaries created? What upholds them? What are the effects if there is a hole in the apparently well constructed fence?
Certainly The Fence poses interesting questions, parralleling several different types of boundaries to question the very notion of what a fence means to humans. This complexity is ably carried by a more than capable cast with both Philip Cumbus as Photo and Victoria Wicks as the Duchess giving brilliantly controlled performances. Wicks in particular, as she teters on the brink of insanity, proving destructive to both herself and those around her, is particularly chilling. It is Nigel Hastings as her servant Kindey, however, who, bumbling and ineffectual, comes closest to giving the play some much needed humanity (and indeed even a flash of humour). Endlessly loyal, despite his knowledge of the Duchess's actions, he simply decides that he cannot allow himself to think. He is someone who must uphold the fence.
The Fence is undoubtedly influenced by Jacobean tragedy - itself not afraid of the subject of incest or the boundaries which we create. Indeed as Wicks, imprisoned and heavily pregnant asserts "I am the Duchess" it seems to be a calculated re-telling of the Duchess of Malfi's "I am Duchess of Malfi still". But here we see where Barker's play, for all its intellectual rigour, starts to slip away. Confusion is certainly not alien to Jacobean theatre but for chunks of The Fence the play becomes simply unintelligible. This is undoubtedly not something that Barker would argue about, his programme notes state "no greater satisfaction might be expressed by a member of its audience than to say 'I did not understand the play but I felt it...". But if we take the play on its own terms, as to what the audience feels, then it is still found wanting. The Fence becomes a series of ideas and images, often thoughtprovoking, sometimes beautiful, but it is never a feeling. For a play that repeatedly evokes the Duchess's apparent sterility it is ironic that the play itself becomes rather sterile. I certainly understood more than I felt. Whether the noticeable number of non-returners after the interval was as a product of them feeling too much into the controversial subject matter or as a result of the fidgety boredom that was beginning to be in evidence was unclear. Certainly the rather subdued applause at the end of the production would point to the fact that there was little satisfaction, of either thought or feeling, amongst this particular audience.
Barker's final words in the programme are quite simply "If the play has no message, the performance of it has a message for the theatre itself". Given the stillborn nature of this play as a theatrical event, I'm not entirely certain that this is a message which the theatre should heed.
Oxford Playhouse, Wednesday 8th June, 2005.