A cruel history of choices

Keith Gallasch

Judy Davis, Colin Friels, John Gaden, Victory

Judy Davis, Colin Friels, John Gaden, Victory

Judy Davis, Colin Friels, John Gaden, Victory

Victory is history in close-up. In the intimacy of the Wharf 1 Theatre, directors Judy Davis and Benjamin Winspear have realised an aptly gruelling and exhilarating production of Howard Barker’s great play. The totality of the playwright’s vision, his arresting linguistic invention, the actors’ taut ensemble playing and the enveloping sound design make for a uniquely immersive experience. The play is a fiction, but it is based on enough history to make it just that much more discomfiting as writer and directors load onto the shoulders of its audience, without concession, all the unbearable weight of being and wills it to endure. By the end, the smallest glimmer of hope and personal restoration is liberating, but the darkness of loss and brutal compromise refuses to disperse. The exhilaration the audience feels is twofold: awe at the art and joy that so damning a vision can allow at least one of its characters some grace.

In Victory the certainties of monarchy and revolution have both collapsed. In the aftermath of the Restoration— of Charles II to the English throne—monarchists and parliamentarians blunder towards jointly forming a new state. The balance of power shifts mightily, bloody vengeances are perpetrated, modern banking is uneasily initiated (as the middle class attempts to control the spending of its king) and chaos threatens at every turn. This unpredictability generates sustained tension and sometimes unbearable suspense as choices are debated, bargained, forced and made, coolly or crazily. The play’s full title is Victory, Choices in Reaction.

Parliament has begrudgingly agreed to Charles’ demand that those who beheaded his father, Charles I, be themselves executed. Bradshaw (Judy Davis), middle class and Puritan, is the wife of one of them, a leading revolutionary polemicist. She wants to bury her husband’s remains despite the government’s utter refusal, setting out on a journey to claim the body, risking murder, surviving rape and inveigling her way into the royal court as a servant. Bradshaw’s determination is blessed by clarity of vision, a capacity to go bluntly to the core of things. It is borne of the bitter years of revolution, the brutalities wrought by her husband’s dogmatic politics and her growing knowledge of the emotional and physical distance that there was between herself and man she loved. Her encounter with John Milton, another revolutionary polemicist (and ardent woman-hater), epitomises her attitude to her husband rather than to the great, blind poet when she belts him across the face and revels in the satisfaction. Soon, the body of the executed husband, what there is left of it, will not be as important to Bradshaw as coming to understand herself.

In the end, bereft of status, her home burned to the ground, Bradshaw is living with Ball, her Cavalier rapist, “a broken man” after his misjudged assassination of the banker Hambro. The unlikely pairing is part of Barker’s vision of the way forward, as people are dragged out of narrow worlds into more complex ones. At first appearance Ball is all ugly threat, by the end we have understood the depth of his feeling and disaffection. Similarly, Barker can portray the Duchess of Devonshire as someone with the values of Margaret Thatcher but in the next moment demand we attend to the horrors of her endless, failed child-bearing and the knot of love this mistress feels for the King. Charles himself falls from self-belief into a depression bordering on madness; he is a man deprived of the absolutism he desires. Throughout her journey, Bradshaw is accompanied by Scrope, her husband’s secretary. His crippling guilt and his blind loyalty to the dead ideologue throw into relief Bradshaw’s pragmatism, her capacity to learn and to separate herself from the past.

The performers inhabit Barker’s language as if truly their own, running with its staccato rhythms and embodying its patterned, tense altercations. There’s a barely repressed visceral quality in the performances, all the more frightening when it erupts. In its midst is Davis’ Bradshaw, often still and relatively quiet amidst the constant swirl of activity, but ever determined, learning and decisive. It’s a superb performance as is Colin Friels’ account of Charles, alternating helplessly between authority and passivity. Marta Dusseldorp’s Duchess is a challenging creation in its mix of arrogance and personal pain. As Bradshaw’s son, disaffected by the ruin the revolution has brought his education and career, Glenn Hazeldine conveys in a finely nuanced performance the adolescent petulance and adult despair that remove him from his mother’s love. John Gaden’s Scrope is a complex portrait of agonising self-deception and David Field’s Ball is a remarkable account of the forces underlying apparent villainy.

All of the performers, save Davis, create a number of characters, with Syd Brisbane, Peter Carroll, Genevieve Lemon, Martin Jacobs and Chris Heywood fleshing out smaller roles with great conviction (no one is minor in this play). Colin Friels doubles as Milton in a crucial moment. The scene where Heywood plays one of the bankers who wants his gold out of the government vault so that he can fondle it is hilarious, as well as a true marker of a historical moment in the managing of the economy (historically later than the play’s setting, but entirely appropriate). Paul Charlier’s sound score admirably evokes spaces and events around and beyond the spare set and Nick Schlieper’s lighting casts moments of radiance amidst the prevailing gloom.

Victory is one of the best theatre productions seen in Sydney for many years. Its power is partly derived from its acuity as historical recreation. Barker is a trained historian, however his aim is not to write history plays as such, rather to reflect on the present. As he told Jo Litson, the play was written during Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power in Britain: “I was interested in how moral change occurs in people and how politics and the dissolution of certain politics provokes and produces that…If you don’t know your history, you don’t know the present” (The Australian, April 20). Even more of the power of this play from 1983 comes from its resonance with subsequent history, in Bosnia, Kosovo and elsewhere where neighbour turned on neighbour. Judy Davis and the STC are to congratulated on staging the play. Except for Brink Productions’ commitment to Barker (including their co-production with the UK’s Wrestling School of The Ecstatic Bible in the 2000 Adelaide Festival) too little of this writer’s work is seen in Australia. In a more enlightened time, this astonishing production would tour the country.

Sydney Theatre Company, Victory, Choices in Reaction, writer Howard Barker, directors Judy Davis, Benjamin Winspear, designer Peter England, costumes Tess Schofield, lighting Nick Schlieper, composer Paul Charlier; Wharf 1 Theatre, opened April 20

RealTime issue #61 June-July 2004 pg. 12

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2004