In Howard Barker’s rarely performed 1985 play The Castle, Stucley and his men return home from the Crusades to find the women have taken over and established their own tribal regime. Far from the hero’s welcome he was expecting, Stucley is horrified to discover his own wife in a relationship with a witch, and with no interest to returning to his bed – or giving him a child, despite having become famous in his absence for her abundant fertility.
Rather than try and work things out, Stucley decides to build a castle designed by Arab “genius” architect Krak, who’s returned home with him from the Holy Land. As construction gets underway, Stucley grows increasingly obsessed with making his castle bigger and more impressive than anybody else’s – but his plan to win back control ultimately only creates more chaos.
It’s quite a strange play in many ways: a lot happens, not all of it very easy to understand and much of it entirely unexpected; it delves into everything from religion to gender politics; and though overwhelmingly dark in tone, there are several moments of surreal humour (at one point Stucley attempts to found a new church, anointing his chosen priest by putting a toolbag on his head in lieu of a hat; at another the witch Skinner, having confessed to murdering the castle’s chief builder, is sentenced to carry his corpse around wherever she goes, only to end up getting rather too attached). The language is also an odd blend of semi-classical and modern, which takes a good few minutes to get used to, particularly as the dialogue is very fast-moving from the start.
Having said all that, Adam Hemming’s new production at The Space is excellent and incredibly atmospheric, with a set from Jo Jones that makes great use of the converted church building to create a show that feels epic in scale. Andy Straw’s lighting design recreates the gloom of rainy middle England, giving us at times only just enough light to see what’s going on, while sound effects from Keri Chesser fill in – on one occasion in rather distressing detail – events unfolding off stage.
The cast of ten give passionate performances, particularly Anthony Cozens as Stucley and Kate Tulloch as Skinner, each driven to the brink of madness by their desire to win. Chris Kyriacou’s Krak looks quietly – and comically – dismayed at first by the chaos he’s stumbled into, but ultimately reveals his own hidden demons, and the same goes for Shelley Davenport’s Ann, whose firm resolve as the play opens soon begins to fall away.
With all these strong personalities fighting for supremacy, the play does get a bit shouty (not to mention sweary) at times – but there’s welcome light relief from the likes of Holiday (Matthew Lyon), who’s spent so much time constructing tall buildings he can’t stop looking up and who, ironically, is petrified of heights, and Hush (John Sears), an old man who’s been making himself useful over the last seven years by obligingly getting all the women pregnant.
Despite the quality of the production, I’m not sure enjoyable is the right word for The Castle – which would probably quite please its writer, who in 2012 was quoted as saying, “A good play puts the audience through a certain ordeal. I’m not interested in entertainment.” All in all, this is the kind of play that leaves you feeling a bit bewildered and more than a little uncomfortable. Those who like to come away from the theatre understanding everything that just happened might want to steer clear; Barker doesn’t give us any easy answers, instead leaving it to the individual to interpret what we’ve seen in our own way. On the other hand, if you enjoy watching committed, compelling performances in a play that’s dramatic and darkly humorous, and which provides more than enough food for thought to keep you going for a good long while, this might just be the show for you.
The Castle is at The Space until 28th October.