JOYCE MCMILLAN on VICTORY at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 1.6.13.
THE KEY is in the subtitle. Howard Barker’s great 1983 play is called Victory: Choices In Reaction; and it tells the tale of what happens – to people, to a society – when a great idealistic revolution fails, and people are forced to adapt to a world turned savage, where ideas like justice and equality are for fools.
Barker’s genius, though, is to place this story in England, in 1660, at the end of his own country’s fiercely radical but now largely forgotten revolution. It’s this collision between Barker’s huge, radical vision and the apparently familiar stuff of English costume history that gives the play its mind-shifting power; and when the concept is fleshed out in Barker’s superb, ferocious, unrelenting stage poetry – full of obscenity, beauty and truth – then you have what is probably the greatest English play of the last half-century.
It’s an understatement to say that Victory is not an easy choice for the students of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland; but in Hugh Hodgart and Mark Stevenson’s careful, perfectly detailed production, the play glows like a great, rough jewel, illuminated by a whole range of fine performances, not least from a magnificent Paksie Vernon as the widow Bradshaw – once wife of England’s greatest revolutionary thinker – and from a heartbreaking Alasdair James as Bradshaw’s ex-cavalier admirer, Ball. Designer Sophie Martin creates a great open stage over which the bodies of the defeated hang in sacks; Christoph Wagner’s lighting shifts us subtly and beautifully through Bradshaw’s strange journey across England, in search of her husband’s skewered and battered remains. And in its greatest moments, in this fine production, Barker’s play leaps with genius; and offers an essential, unforgettable insight into the story of England, a country once bitten by its own intense dream of a radical egalitarian future, and now – three and a half centuries on – still more than twice shy.