Peter Barnes is another prolific playwright whose work I am only discovering now. The play I read today, Dreaming, reminded me of Howard Barker’s The Castle although with less swearing and more dismemberment.
Dreaming is set in England after the War of the Roses. Barnes wrote detailed descriptions of the images he wanted in the play so that it opens with cannons firing, a dead horse on its side with its guts spilling out and monstrous knights rising out of the carnage. The lights fade on this inferno and come up on a dead priest crucified on a crude cross and a woman and boy making their living by robbing the corpses or ministering to the wounded.
BESS: Death and mutilation, Davy, hammer-blows behind knees, daggers thrust through visors, and knightly groins so they lie drowning in their raw blood, and the dogs pissing on their dead eyes … I LOVE it! This is our home, Davy!
DAVY: Gold is my home. Gold is friendship, beauty, wit, courage, honour, reason for living … (He laughs.) Gold makes me laugh, Bess. The more I have, the more I laugh.
In these first two lines, Barnes sets up the theme for Dreaming. It’s a play about ‘home’ and what that means to each of the characters and how they search for it. Bess and Davey are part of a motley crew led by John Mallory, their captain. They have all prospered during the 20 years of war and will now have to find a new way of surviving as the war has finally been won.
BESS: So now it’s peace?
DAVY: What’s peace?
SKELTON: No more war.
BESS: But war is all we know.
DAVY: How do we live?
SKELTON: How do I die?
Skelton has been fighting with one aim: to die. But his life has seemed charmed and, no matter how he courts it, death eludes him. For him, dying will be going home. Mallory is longing to make it back to his wife and daughter whom he left years before and the others follow him on his journey. But when he gets to his house he finds it in ruins and ghosts are all that’s left of his family.
Despite the many deaths, Dreaming is filled with humour and gags – they come almost as thick as the piles of bodies that litter the stage. The Duke of Gloucester (who will become Richard III) tries to enlist Mallory’s help and Barnes plays with Shakespeare’s text to come up with some lovely lines for anyone who knows their Shakespeare.
GLOUCESTER: Now is the summer of my deep content … (He laughs.) That has a good ring to it. People put words into my mouth, the wrong words usually. They see Richard, Duke of Gloucester, as some kind of villain. On the other hand, villains get the best lines, so I shouldn’t complain …
The actors should also be tumblers, jugglers, dancers and singers if the stage directions are to be followed for this is a play that’s a carnival and a circus. Love is found and lost and found again. After Richard massacres the Beauforts to ensure there is no one who can claim their title or estates, Mallory thinks he sees his dead wife in the young woman who arrives at the estate to find all her family murdered.
MALLORY: Is it another ghost, another spirit from the deep? … No, it’s my Sarah, I won’t let her go a second time.
BESS: She’s dark-haired, Sarah was blonde. She’s got different coloured eyes, different face, different body, different voice, weight and height.
MALLORY: But apart from that she’s exactly like Sarah.
KELL: This is Susan Beaufort, a widow and distant cousin of the dead Duke. She was here to marry lucky Beaufort who died at Tewkesbury. She’s been away a week so Gloucester missed her. Massacres are rarely one hundred per cent proof, there’s usually someone left.
Mallory is determined to marry and save Susan (his new Sarah), which means taking on the wrath of Richard and all his armies. It’s a suicidal mission but worth it to find the home he seeks.
Publisher: Methuen Drama
Cast: many! could be doubled but probably needs at least 7M and 5F.