Review: ‘Barbarians’, by Barrie Keefe

There is that old line by Adorno that poetry after the holocaust is barbaric.Michael reminded me of this line after I came out of seeing a play earlier this week. What I saw was ugliness, bleak despair in Doc Martens and suspenders. I don’t normally get to visit the Noumenal Realm crew but an unrelated occaision brought us all together, and since I was local to South London, I was told about a burgeoning grassroots cultural group called the ‘Tooting Arts Club’ who have been around for a bit over a year now. Ever the ones for new experiences, about three of us went to see a play that we knew nothing about.

‘Barbarians’, by Barrie Keefe apparently debuted about 20 years ago in the early 1990s. This being the early 2010s, there is a layer of significance about this play that resonates with the present day. Thinking about what Adorno wrote on the holocaust all those years ago gives a sense of distance about what the Second World War was, as seven decades have passed and those with living memories are fewer in number. This play however, is set in the late 1970s. The play was set in a time period so close, many of the audience (the various 50 and 60 somethings) were probably the same age as the youths depicted in the play. The slightly younger mid-30 to mid-40 somethings were probably familiar with the economic downturn of the late 1980s and early 1990s where the play originally had its run. During the break in a conversation with Antisophie, we commented how although we were hardly alive or conscious adults during either the 1970s or late 80s, this play cuts close to the bone for us as well.

The situation is Lewisham, an area of London not too much unlike Tooting. The time is set (I think) over a year or two in the late 70s. The most interesting part about the play was that there was no distinction between audience and stage. As we came in to the play, one of the cast members was hanging around and engraving various things on the wall. The ‘stage’ was a former building dedicated for some kind of youth employment scheme in a bygone year, which is pertinent since the first act refers to the careers advice given to the characters at the time: train for a profession and get a competitive edge in the job market. Of course, everybody knew that such a plan didn’t work in difficult economic times.

Bell’s post-industrial society came to mind when the characters were not impressed at the prospect of working in a factory filled with predominantly women, gender roles associated with industrial work and masculinity were strongly ingrained in that generation. There was no ‘stage’ as such, but rather different aspects of the building were through the process of the performance. The characters would break the forth wall and ask us, as the audience to kindly stand up and sit in a different place, the chairs were then reorganised and we faced a different part of the building to see the next act of the play. In this way, there was no distinction between the audience and the performers. One performer flirted with one of the female audience members (which I must presume is part of the script) and at another point, another person’s alcoholic drink was almost spilled the other actor jumped on the table. The degree of eye contact and talking with us, the audience was deeply uncomfortable for me. Michael commented that it reminded him of when he went to see Marc Maron a while back and Maron looked at him and said, almost with mimicry ‘will you be my dad?’.

The changing nature of space was very innovative, and it helped the audience engage more with what this play was about. I normally read plays as opposed to watching them (the same goes for Opera), and there is a comfortable distance when reading about difficult subjects or even pleasant ones. Being in a stage so physically close to the actors (one of them in fact bumped into me during the pitch black scene change) and the setting of the play based in a time period very close to the present ensured that every member of that audience felt engaged.

The play was deeply upsetting. The main themes of the play seemed to be about the lack of sense of belonging among the characters Jan, Louis and Paul. The play also featured a distinct sense of betrayal from many sections of society to these three youths. Paul’s betrayal by his duplicitous cousin who he is unwittingly playing as a pawn to; Jan’s betrayal from both his family through his absentee father to his unreliable uncle whom he places much confidence in; finally there is Louis, the black British character who finds friendship among the other two white protagonists but also plays a pawn to Paul’s various schemes. Louis appears at the end as the most successful character who manages to find a profession and a bit of an earning, but ultimately cannot escape racism.

There is a bit of racism in this play. Michael commented how brutal it was, plus adding the unease of being in a predominantly white bourgeois audience. With many performances, like say, Antigone or Dido and Aeneas, one can walk away from the play with a sense of distance and perhaps eat cake or whatever it is people do after plays. With this play, walking out of that building from the 1970s to 2012 really made no difference. I entered a building where the Conservative Government were more interested in party political quibbles than Youth Employment, where money was tight for many people concerned and many people felt betrayed by the false hopes and aspirations taught to them by the older generation. The only real difference between going inside that building and coming out to Tooting High Street was the smartphone in my pocket. What made this play really successful was that the sense of despair and ugliness about the time of the 1970s is something that one cannot ignore, moreover, the similar sense of pessimism for the present day is something we are reminded of. I thought to myself that this was a great piece by the expressionist standard.

I was chatting to Antisophie on Skype earlier today who made a couple of observations to the point of trying to be funny, it was lost on me. Antisophie’s first remark was to tell me about a gag on this week’s episode of Have I Got News For You, a popular panel show about current affairs. The joke was concerning the Jubiliee celebrations, that the Jubilee committee asked the Punk band Sex Pistols whether they would celebrate the Diamond Jubilee in the way that they did with the Jubilee in 1977 by re-forming. The punchline was that they declined because John Lyndon was unavailable, as he was filming for a butter commercial. I then was reminded of Adorno’s thesis that the Culture Industry eventually subverts the subversive into aggressive capitalism. The other mocking comment she made was that she said after the play Michael probably listened to Burzum on the way home [editorial: I did (MP)] feeling some disingenuous sense of facile sensibility. While there was some acknowledgement into the youth culture and movements of the time (Notting Hill Carnival, Punk Music), the play does not overplay the ‘radical’ aspects of these cultural forms by putting some balance about the boring aspects of the 1970s. There was for instance a 1970s original poster informing us about V.D. and the stage changes were aided by some crass televisual advertisments of the time, such as the inadvertently ridiculous female perfume named ‘Tramp’. It was a good call not to overplay the revolutionary aspects youth culture of the time, that’s for the aging trustafarians who boast their punk anarchist credentials to local ramblers who pass their farm house.

Michael commented on how the whirling and altering nature of the stage, as well as the near-contemporary setting of the 1970s reminds him of Goffman’s notion of the front and back stage. So much of society is the front stage that the back stage is an exhaustingly small domain. The embarrassment of the audience when the actors would look at us and talk to us reminded me of the small space that Goffman’s ‘back stage’ has in social life. The fact that one could not escape the subjects of the play by simply leaving the performance venue also made us uncomfortable. The emphasis on performance in social behaviour, aggrivated by the rise of service industries and the perfectionism of television media as it tries to make real life into its ‘reality’ reminds me of how little space there is for a back stage. There is betrayal and objectification from larger social forces. The final essence of the play is that something’s gotta give if the youth of today are under such pressure and under such psychologically destructive forces that undermine identity, group affiliation or the failure of aspiration.This was expressed in the play by the hint of racialist politics by the character Paul, or the hint of post-traumatic stress from Jan. Or we may simply be victims by other victims, like Louis.

A few hours after the play once I got home, I was reminded of a more modern parable: Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight. I thought of the Joker because he seems to represent a villain that emerges from the social conditions of Gotham City. In that way, he represents all of the corruption and ills and lies of the society that he came from. The extreme psychotic criminality makes more sense in the context of Gotham City’s corruption. Just like the ending of Barbarians, when economic and social conditions become difficult, something’s gotta give.


We also very much appreciate the work of Tooting Arts Club for their latest venture, but also their past and (hopefully) future events.

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