'Barbarians' review or 'Every now and then I fall apart.'
'Barbarians', Barrie Keeffe
Young Vic Theatre, 2nd December 2015
An angry looking lad chucks a ball against a wall and it thumps, thumps, thumps. His two mates prowl the theatre and, before ‘Barbarians’ has even begun, we’ve felt the hot breath of these lads on our faces. The rest of the production is equally intimate, sticky and ugly as three young men - unemployed, frightened and desperate for anything that might ‘make the blood boil’ – try to find their place in a walled-up world that the does not seem to want them.
Barrie Keeffe’s trilogy of plays is set in London in the 1970s; a time when unemployment rates are so high that even the job counsellor is looking for a job. The first mini play – ‘Killing Time’ – has a whiff of ‘Only Fools And Horses’ about it as school leavers Paul, Jan and Louis try to come up with a plan to find some extra dosh. Keeffe’s play could have been one great extended roar of aggression but director Liz Stevenson is far too subtle for that and finds moments of tenderness, humour and hope.
As the lads’ plan spirals hopelessly out of control, the atmosphere zings between fierce and farcical. Little pockets of play and innocence open up. As the lads wade about in the river in an attempt to find their car keys, the trio gleefully sing the Batman theme song. Their torches flicker in the darkness; a little circle of light against a great chasm of black.
Light is used rather beautifully in this production; always as a symbol for something gorgeous, even spiritual that lies just beyond the boys’ reach. In the second play it’s Cup Final day and the gang – all staunch Man United fans (look how far they have to travel to find somewhere that feels like home) – prowl outside the grounds, desperate to get inside. When the game begins, the roars of the crowd gently explode and a great light blooms from behind a looming wall. Paul roars out in desperation: ‘If it weren’t for that fucking wall!’ All of his angry energy bounces off the walls of Fly Davis’ beautifully boxed in set and the walls of the venue itself and lodges itself somewhere deep inside Paul’s guts.
The actors pull us in and spit us out again and our reactions – the great public’s reaction – seem to feed these young lads, for better or for worse. Fisayo Akinade is properly charming as the ‘black James Dean’ Louis, a man with real softness beneath his swagger. Alex Austin’s Jan is as fragile and brittle as paper and Brian Vernel’s performance as ring leader Paul is so intense you fear his health. We begin to physically understand how the push and pull of public perception can work with or against a young person. When we pull away, the actors get fiercer. When we lean in: hope.
Director Stevenson accents these performances, tender and ugly, with a production that never lets us rest. That confrontational prelude - in which almost all of us are accosted, glared or leered at – keeps the audience on edge. But we are gradually drawn in: the actors give us magazines to read or smile and laugh with us. They sit beside us, either squidged in between our seats or perched on one of the platforms that run right by our heads. Stevenson teases and prods at us, provoking our distrust and empathy towards these boys that the public has labelled ‘barbarians’. But just as we begin to soften, the music blares, the lights flash and an actor jumps so hard on the platform beside us that it feels like he’s stamping our heads in. We flinch at this danger, protect ourselves and move away – and the violence on stage gallops out of control; free, unchecked and out of our reach.