Howard Barker pulls no punches in Victory – but if you’ve read any of his other plays you’ll expect no less of the man. This is a powerful juggernaut of a play: scathing, brilliant and witty, crude, courageous and biting.
It’s a historical play in that it covers the period when England’s Charles II was restored to power after his father, Charles I, had been tried, found guilty and beheaded. The play begins in 1661 with soldiers exhuming the corpse of John Bradshaw, the judge who ordered the King’s death. The new King has ordered that the body of Bradshaw be exhumed, hung in chains, beheaded and then displayed with his head on a spike.
When I started reading, I thought it all a wildly fanciful invention. It was a while before I realised the events were all historical. Victory follows Bradshaw, the Judge’s widow, as she sets out to retrieve her husband’s body parts.
BRADSHAW: I will bring you back. I will get your bits, your chops and scrag, your offal and your lean cuts, I will collect them. I will bring your poor bald head away that hurt me so much with its arguments…
We go straight from this widow’s pledge to a scene with Charles II and his courtiers:
CHARLES: Is that the head?
HAMBRO: (looking out the window) It’s Bradshaw, yes.
CHARLES: There is shagall left of it.
PONTING: He is three years dead and the field was wet.
CHARLES: I will chuck skittles at it. Lower the window. I will head shy.
Victory has a huge cast: there are farmers, republican rebels, the King and his courtiers, the investors and bankers who now run the country and a few whores for good measure. On the page this makes for a dense read just trying to keep track of the characters, but there would be no such problems on stage.
Howard Barker does so much with this play, far too much to comprehend in a first read. I am putting this on my list to be read again as soon as this play-a-day year is over. It’s a play about politics, civil war and the monarchy, about class, power and greed and about a woman finding her strength and her voice.
BRADSHAW: Yes means no resistance. Yes means going with the current. Yes means lying down when it rains and standing up when it’s sunny. Yes urge. Yes womb. Yes power. I lived with a man whose no was in the middle of his heart, whose no kept him thin as a bone and stole the juices from him. No is pain and yes is pleasure, no is man and yes is nature. Yes is old age and no is early death. Yes is laughter, no is torture. I hate no. No is misery and lonely nights.
This is a powerful political work and one that I’d love to see staged.
Publisher: John Calder
Cast: Dozens (although it has been performed with 2F and 8M)