The Castle has been sitting on my bookshelf for months. Thank you to Steven Mitchell Wright for giving me the prompt to read it now. Once again I’m shocked to be ‘discovering’ a writer this late. Howard Barker has written more than 60 plays and yet it was only his critical writing that I’d read before today. (Because Death, the One, and the Art of Theatre hadn’t resonated with me, I hadn’t sought out his plays.)
I have loved reading The Castle: it shocked me on the page, which is something few plays manage. It intrigued me and captured my curiosity and made me think and question. All attributes that fit well with Barker’s Theatre of Catastrophe: theatre without pat answers or clear meanings where the actors and the audience are “inspired to find meaning and resonance from a multiplicity of interpretations”.
The Castle is complex, provocative, crude, hilarious and exciting. A knight (Stucley) comes home from the crusades to find his fields fallow, his sheep unsheared and his home overrun with babies and children (none of whom can be his or his soldiers’.) His wife (Ann) and all the women have obviously been busy while the men have been away. They have changed their world and made it one that rejoices in femininity, in fertility, in all that’s fecund and bountiful.
SKINNER: First there was the bailiff, and we broke the bailiff. Then there was God, and we broke God. And lastly there was cock, and we broke that too. Freed the ground, freed religion, freed the body. And we went up this hill, standing together naked like the old female pack, growing to eat and not to market, friends to cattle who we milked but never slaughtered, joining the strips and dancing in the commons, the three days labour that we gave to the priests gave instead to the hungry, turned the tithe ban into a hospital and found cunt beautiful that we had hidden and suffered shame for, its lovely shapelessness, its colour all miraculous, what they had made dirty or worshipped out of ignorance […]
The ‘c’ word is used throughout this play, in much the way DH Lawrence used it in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Those who walk out of theatres when they hear it used should sit and listen as in The Castle it is restored to dignity and power, while also being used by some of the characters as a pejorative.
Stucley and his soldiers lose no time in setting things to rights, which means putting up walls and battlements, chopping down forests, restoring the church and fortressing their domain. Some of the women resist while others are only too glad to have young stallions back among them. Skinner, the witch and the lover of Ann, suffers the most at the destruction of their idyll. When Ann draws away from her, she is enraged.
SKINNER: I would rather you were dead than took a step or shuffle back from me. Dead, and I would do it. There I go, what is it you look so distant.
ANN: I think you are – obsessive.
SKINNER: Obsessive, me? Obsessive? (Pause. She fights down something) I nearly got angry, then and nearly went – no – I will not – and – wait, the anger sinks – (Pause) Like tipping water on the sand, the anger goes, the anger vanishes – into what? I’ve no idea, my entrails, I assume. I do piss anger in the night, my pot is angerfull.
The imagery and humour in this play are fantastic. It’s glorious and ribald as well as being ripe for interpretation. The Mists of Avalon meets Reservoir Dogs.
When the old man who has fathered most of the infants is brought to his knees in front of Stucley, Ann remonstrates with him:
ANN: Why do you love your life so much? So much that even dignity gets spewed, and truth kicked into blubber, and will itself as pliable as a string of gut? You have no appetite but life itself, I mean breathing and continuing. There can’t be a man alive with more children and less interest in the world they grow up in. […] IF YOU ACHIEVE IMMORTALITY I SHALL BE FURIOUS.
Publisher: John Calder (published with Scenes from an Execution)
Cast: Numerous, but could probably be performed with doubling and a smaller cast (perhaps 5M, 5F)