JOYCE MCMILLAN on WOUNDS TO THE FACE at the New Athenaum Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 22.5.08
3 stars ***
WITH STORMCLOUDS of controversy and underfunding swirling around Scotland’s drama schools, it’s good to see the final year students at the RSAMD testing themselves against the best. Howard Barker is perhaps the most brilliant and least compromising of all living British playwrights; and if his 1995 piece Wounds To The Face is not his weightiest work, it still presents a formidable, disturbing challenge.
Structured in fourteen short, episodic scenes, this powerful contemporary text examines the relationship between physical appearance and identity in merciless detail, considering the ruined faces of, among others, a war-wounded soldier, a discontented woman, an old philanderer disfigured by the pox; it also considers the sheer, casual cruelty of youth and beauty. Hugh Hodgart and Liam Brennan’s production – in a towering theatre space created on the stage of the New Athenaeum – looks breathtakingly fine, with a spectacular design by Kirsty McCabe (superbly lit by Andrew Smart) that makes magnificent use of giant portrait mirrors, and tall, soaring poster inages.
Where the production falters is in its tone. There’s far too much conventional “acting” and characterisation, not nearly enough Brechtian dryness and distance, combined with the ruthless focus on the play’s themes made possible by that harder, clearer performance style. But Jenny Hulse shows terrific promise in a clutch of key female roles; and if this Barker sometimes looks frighteningly like the kind of bourgeois British theatre he hates, it still makes for a fascinating and absorbing evening.