There's a dizzying number of ideas shoehorned into British playwright Howard Barker's play—and number of actors into the Storefront Theatre's intimate playing space.
Not every playwright coins a term for their particular brand of writing and staging, but British playwright Howard Barker has. He refers to his work as the “theatre of catastrophe,” and overloads it with historical references, hoping to give his audience so many frames of reference that their individual responses are unique—a theatrical Rorschach test. The Castle, currently playing at the Storefront Theatre, certainly succeeds in this; while taking notes, references to the arms race, the Cold War, the suffragette movement, the creation of the Church of England, and much more were scribbled down, slowly subsiding as we focused instead on the tragedy that Barker considers vital for maximum impact in his work.
Right from the start, heartbreak and loss motivate The Castle‘s ensemble to increasingly heinous deeds. Religious crusader Stucley (an alternately oafish and insecure Benjamin Blais) returns with his fellow surviving soldiers (and an enigmatic prisoner played by Mike Dufays) to his homeland, only to discover the women and men left behind have undertaken a radical reimagining of society, led in part by his older wife, Ann (Linda Prystawska) and her lover (and fellow presumed widow), Skinner the witch (Claire Burns). The church has been converted into a cow barn; the fertile Ann has had numerous children by numerous fathers; and the concept of property (and even fences) has disappeared. Stucley, outraged by his perceived cuckolding, orders his men, including his lieutenant Batter (Brenhan McKibben), to raze the bucolic field, and puts his educated slave to work designing a massive fortification to house the community in “for protection,”
a task Dufay’s Krak applies himself to with laconic and bitter relish.
On the theological side, Stucley bullies the malleable priest Nailer (Michael Spencer-Davis) into reinterpreting the Bible, in a scene that immediately brought Henry VIII’s Church of England to mind, into a “gospel of the Christ erect.” That phallic focus is visually displayed as the titular Castle is gradually constructed on a projected backdrop by the puppeteers of Caterwaul Theatre, while the foreman Holiday (played by Sean Sullivan as a cheerful but fatalistic hired hand) orders around the builder-cum-soldiers.
One might think that Barker’s allegory is of a paradise lost, but that’d be too simple for his designs. Right from the start, “earth mother” Skinner is eager to bury a blade in Stucley to keep Ann under her thrall, and when a later violent act has her prosecuted, her obsessive behaviour slowly turns her into a suffering martyr. Ann’s many dalliances, which grow to include the captive Krak, are a result of desperate and unbridled lust rather than any free-love ideology. The corruption in all the character’s hearts, manifested in the castle (yet oddly enough, barely mirrored by the set, which loses some tree trunks, but doesn’t hint at devastation), grows until it spills out beyond their immediate surroundings, as the whole world becomes obsessed with stifling fortifications.
Perhaps in line with all of Barker’s mixed allegories, the performances veer between cartoonish buffoonery and understated sensitivity. Burn’s speech during Skinner’s trial is a standout, as is Blais and Davis’ scene regarding religious instruction. But Prystwaska’s scenes with her various spurned lovers had odd pauses that didn’t seem justified by the text, and Krak’s cool disdain for the people he’s been forced to live among cracks too suddenly when he loses his new lover. The many (and mostly depressing) ideas in Barker’s script are on full display, but the emotional and often irrational impulses that bring them to the fore are frustratingly fleeting. Again, that may be Barker’s intent—refusing to give his characters satisfying emotional journeys for the audience to follow—but we found it distancing. Still, this is the most ambitious production yet staged at the Storefront, and director Dean Gabourie and his creative team deserve credit for cramming it into Storefront’s intimate environs. It may not be holiday fare— especially with the vulgar language Barker employs, with a disclaimer in the lobby boasting of more than 50 utterances of the word “cu*t.” But there’s a lot thrown up on the high walls for discerning audiences to peer at and pick apart.