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Tim Carroll’schoice of Howard Barker’s Victory for the current season at theShaw Festival may be described as “bold and courageous.”  As Artistic Director of the Festival, choosingplays is his job and as a Director who he has chosen to direct it.  He directed the play in Hungary in Hungarianin 2002 and Barker is relatively unknown in Canada and it may have looked likea good idea to introduce him more broadly to Canadian audiences.

Barker wrote Victoryin 1979 and the play was first produced at the Royal Court Theatre in 1983.Barker considers it “an acknowledged masterpiece” and Carroll tells us that“discovering Howard Barker blew my mind wide open.” So far so good.

The productionin the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre was confusing, inept, pretentious and acrashing bore. There were some impromptu reviews by people who never returnedafter the intermission and the ones that stayed showed little enthusiasm. Therewas no curtain call at all.

Before theperformance begins, Assistant Director Brendan McMurtry-Howlett tells us thatthe play takes place in the aftermath of the English Civil War. That’s the onewhere King Charles I was executed by Oliver Cromwell and his followers whoestablished a republic. It did not do well, and the monarchy was re-establishedwith the return of Charles II in 1660.

Charles II ishell-bent on taking vengeance on his father’s murderers and in this play heexhumes the traitors’ bodies, including that of Justice Bradshaw who signed thedeath warrant for the king. Upon finding the corpses, they are “executed” andtheir head is placed on a stake in public as an example to the people.

We meet Scrope(Patrick Galligan) who was Justice Bradshaw’s Secretary and he is regrettinghaving betrayed his master by disclosing his place of burial to the King’s soldiers.The latter use foul language including the c word as if they were ordering somethingat Tim Hortons. The use of colloquial, sexually explicit language is rampantthroughout the play and it loses what little shock value it may have after afew minutes.

Talk of sex,display or almost display of genitals, suggested rape, masturbation and whateverelse you want to imagine are all there and they neither shock, nor disgust andyou and you wonder why they are there at all.

At the end ofthe first act, we are told to follow a cast member who leads to a rehearsalroom in the basement for the Interlude of the play. Most people are seated forthe 15-minute scene in a dark area that is supposed to be the vault of the Bankof England. I think this is supposed to be the beginning of capitalism.

The play lastsfor 2 hours and 50 minutes.

The publishedversion of the play lists 34 characters plus beggars. The program lists 12 charactersonly with the note that other parts are played by members of the ensemble. Noguidance as to what the other parts are or who will play them. The list givesonly the surname and occupation of the characters and they are frequently referredto by their first names in the play. If you can’t remember who is who of the 34roles that Barker lists or the 12 who play 34 roles, I guess, that is your toughluck. Exit stage right at intermission.

The irony of thewhole thing is that there is a superb cast who could have done marvels and may evenhave made the play comprehensible. Martha Burns plays the widow Bradshaw, atough woman who has seen a great deal during the ugly Civil War. Deborah Hayplays Nell Gwynn, the actress and mistress of Charles II. She is described as aprostitute. Tom McCamus plays Charles II who is rude, creepy and probably apsychopath. Tom Rooney is Ball, a royalist who becomes a republican and god knowswhere he stands or what he does.

All is done onan empty stage with characters walking on and off with the audience trying tofigure out who is on and who is off and what in the world they are doing.

Bold andcourageous? Perhaps. But there are many other factors to be considered inchoosing a play and how it is presented. Carroll’s boldness and courage seem tohave misfired.


Victory  byHoward Barker will run in repertory until October 12, 2019 at the JackieMaxwell Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake,Ontario.

August 30, 2019

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