Skip to main content

Theatre Reviews Shaw Festival 2019: Howard Barker’s Victory reveals the British playwright as all bark, no bite

Tom McCamus, as Charles II, carries himself majestically on stage, engaging in all kinds of debauchery with his mistress Devonshire (Sara Topham) and Cockney drinking pal Nodd (Emily Lukasik).

David Cooper/Handout

  • Title: Victory
  • Written by: Howard Barker
  • Director: Tim Carroll
  • Actors: Martha Burns, Tom McCamus, Tom Rooney
  • Company: Shaw Festival
  • Venue: Studio Theatre
  • City: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
  • Year: Continues to Oct. 12, 2019

rating

Howard Barker is one of those playwrights who wears it as a badge of pride that he’s never been fully embraced by his country’s theatrical institutions or theatregoing public.

There are a number of these British stage scribes whose fans believe it a sign of their superiority that they are more widely produced “on the continent” – and some have, indeed, been unfairly neglected or misunderstood at home.

But Canadian playwrights can only look at the Barkers and the Bonds, the Kanes and the Crimps with envy – our best-known are lesser-known than these supposed outcasts, and our outcasts are invisible. (It’s not just us, of course: Name two contemporary Brazilian or Syrian playwrights.)

Story continues below advertisement

Victory: Choices in Reaction, Barker’s 1983 play set during the English Restoration, is now getting a starry production at the Shaw Festival that makes it particularly hard to buy into the rebel sell behind his brand. This is the work of a dated bad boy whose disregard for structure and stakes seems to stem from arrogance more than brilliance.

A meandering affair receiving a low-key production from Shaw artistic director Tim Carroll, Victory circles around a widow known as Bradshaw (Martha Burns), whose late husband was one of the men who signed the royal death warrant for Charles I a decade before the play begins.

Now that Charles II has been installed on the throne, pardon has been extended to those who opposed the monarchy – save the signatories of that warrant, who are given show trials and put to death. Those already dead, like Mr. Bradshaw, have their bodies dug up and put on display.

Tom Rooney portrays Royalist fighter Ball, who, bored in peacetime, becomes fixated on the rapacious pursuit of Martha Burns's Bradshaw.

David Cooper/Handout

It eventually becomes clear that Bradshaw has decided to collect her husband’s parts. Unlike Antigone, the Greek tragic heroine who insists upon proper burial for a loved one, however, she does not live by a clear code and lacks any clear motivation for her mission.

Like other characters in Victory, she seems to act or react in haphazard ways, scene to scene.

Bradshaw is accompanied by the self-pitying Scrope (a wonderfully despicable Patrick Galligan), a Puritan idealist and a coward, and is pursued by a Royalist fighter named Ball (Tom Rooney), who is depressed in peacetime and now is fixated on raping Bradshaw.

Meanwhile, in the court, Charles II (Tom McCamus) engages in all kinds of debauchery with his mistress Devonshire (Sara Topham) and Cockney drinking pal Nodd (Emily Lukasik).

Story continues below advertisement

McCamus carries himself majestically on stage, and excels at louche ennui – but you may be a bit tired of this if you saw his similar King John at Stratford or George III in The Madness of … at Shaw.

As depicted by Barker, Restoration England has not found a new balance of power between Parliament and King, but instead is now controlled by a group of bankers and property owners led by Hambro (Gray Powell).

You can feel the play’s Thatcher-era origins here – and Carroll’s staging is at its smartest during the scene in which Barker’s conspiratorial anti-capitalist thinking is made clear. He leads the audience downstairs to a candlelit rehearsal room before intermission to peek in on a literal shadowy cabal hiding beneath the play.

The sharpness and tension of this scene is oddly absent from the rest of the show, which trades in ambivalent emotion and surface provocation.

With the exception of a single, tense scene that lays bare the play's Thatcher-era origins, Victory trades primarily in ambivalent emotion and surface provocation.

David Cooper/Handout

Many of Canada’s most renowned classical actors use the C-word with abandon – and one makes out with a putrid skull. There’s gruesome torture, sexual violence and a general depiction of humanity as cynical and opportunist that will scandalize exactly no one who watches Game of Thrones.

None of this has any bite and some of it feels eye-rollingly adolescent. I think it’s a mistake to take Barker at his word that his plays are free of ideology and that one should avoid strong directorial or acting takes.

Story continues below advertisement

This may sound like a contradiction, but Victory is a play I personally would have bought a ticket for this summer and would not have left feeling robbed.

A couple of decades ago, Barker was first passed to me like a strong joint in undergrad with a whisper: This is the real stuff. But I’ve gone from eagerly underlining passages in his Arguments for a Theatre (“The authoritarian art form is the musical”) to finding myself blaming underwhelming productions for my dissatisfaction with him in performance, and I’m glad now to have the opportunity to come to my own conclusion that his plays are probably justly sidelined.

It’s certainly hard not to be put off by Barker’s immense ego and unacknowledged privilege in a program note he’s penned called “Four Decades Since Writing Victory.” He writes that Victory – “an acknowledged masterpiece now” – was first staged in 1983, but “had languished on the shelves at the Royal Court Theatre, the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company for nearly three years.”

Three years, poor man. A white, male, English-language playwright with a theatrical manifesto in its fourth edition writing that in 2019 gives you an idea of how out of touch he is now.

Editor’s note: (August 13) An earlier version of this review incorrectly stated that Tim Carroll directed Tom McCamus in The Madness of George III at the Shaw Festival. The director of that production, in fact, was Kevin Bennett.

Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter