So. There’s a Nuremberg judge burning his library of unread books, while his daughter copulates obsessively with the dying. A faceless, bare-breasted woman stalks across the stage, groaning ‘I am all the Anne Franks’ to the point of absurdity, then tedium. Three mechanical dogs trundle awkwardly about, howling unpersuasively and cluttering up the space. And a sinister chorus line of uniformed nurses march, smirk, titter, and bare their backsides in mindless unison.
Howard Barker’s Found in the Ground is suffused with the furious lassitude which follows the discovery that rote piety is as poisonous a rote evil, that virtue and justice are polluted by the vulgar quotidian they purport to serve, and that neither the desecration nor the fetishisation of great wickedness is any substitute for the thing itself. Arbitrary wickedness is revealed as the only possible route to self-assertion in a world that has degraded all the existing atrocities into tourist attractions, philosophy, or (worse) art. And then Hitler arrives, placidly extolling the virtues and pleasures of long rural rambles.
This production has all the hallmarks of Barker directing Barker: darkness, declamatoriness, unnecessary female nudity and uncompromising cruelty exercised to the point of self-indulgence. The acting company are surreptitiously wonderful, like naughty children scribbling cartoons in the margins of their algebra. The pace is unremittingly funereal.
I personally suspect that Found in the Ground might be more rewarding to read than to watch. Also that it might be more rewarding to watch if directed by someone other than its author. Barker’s comprehensive contempt for spectators whose jejune theatrical tastes run to more than bare breasts and black curtains is conspicuous. A yellow dressing gown glows with rare opulence amid the gloom, while all those burning books emit no more than a wan, sickly seepage of paler darkness.
This is a style of presentation that Barker enthusiasts will recognise, and some will undoubtedly relish. But Found in the Ground isn’t calculated to accommodate the Barker novice, or anyone with a low-ish boredom threshold. So you’ve been warned.