In today's Guardian I have a small piece about Howard Barker. It was originally written at just under 900 words, and I only managed that by heavily editing as I was going along. He said A LOT of stuff I found interesting. So, for reasons I cannot even begin to explain (but which probably involve wanting to avoid sending the transcript to Andrew Haydon, who will skit me for not taking him to task more), instead of going to bed after seeing Curious Incident at the NT tonight, I've stayed up stupidly late and expanded the original with significantly more quotes. As I said to him on the day: it's hard to see the difference, sometimes, between a love of writing and obsessive compulsive disorder.
For most British playwrights, having work staged at the National Theatre for the first time would be a pinnacle of achievement. For Howard Barker, it is a kind of defeat. The play selected by the National for his debut is Scenes From an Execution: written for radio in 1983 and recast for the stage soon after, it portrays the fraught relationship between a pusillanimous artist, Galactia, and her patrons in 16th-century Venice. It is Barker's most famous and accessible play – and therein lies his problem.
“It's long overdue, and I'm glad it's being done,” he says. “But I've got a lot of plays that are better than this that I'd rather have seen here.” Plays like Victory, a bold swoop through restoration England, featuring a king obsessed with bottoms and paupers liberal with the word cunt. Or The Europeans, a gory vision of 17th-century Vienna following the expulsion of invading Muslim forces, in which a raped woman gives birth on stage. These plays are harder, says Barker: to watch, and to comprehend.
“A good play puts the audience through a certain ordeal,” he says. “I believe in the ordeal in theatre: I'm not interested in entertainment. [Scenes] isn't an ordeal – maybe it is for the actress, because it's a big role, but as far as the public's concerned, it's not. What they knew when they came in is more or less what they know when they leave. I believe in artistic pain, if you like: I think pain is part of the experience of great art.”
He's fond of Galactia, being played at the National by Fiona Shaw: “It's quite a withering portrait of a monomaniacal, moralistic, unforgiving individual very interested in general issues but almost oblivious to the pain of people next to her,” he says. But the suggestion that she comes across sympathetically fills him with disdain. “I don't like sympathetic characters. Theatre should be a taxing experience: the greatest achievement of a writer is to produce a character who creates anxiety. It's so wonderful to see an actor take that on without fear: 'So the audience doesn't like me: so what?' That's terrific – you don't see it often.”
You can see why this imposing figure crunched into an armchair at the National, with icy blue eyes and snow-white hair, is so frequently described as chilly. (Last week I had to speak to Shaw for another piece I'm doing for the Guardian and she said it, too.) Yet, there's something curiously romantic about Barker. He has a singular vision of what theatre should be and adheres to it rigorously. The key points were expounded in a book of essays titled Arguments for a Theatre, first published in 1989 and honed ever since. Reading it feels queasy but electrifying, because it's so rambunctious. The first piece – published in the Guardian (!), in 1986 – is a list of 49 precepts: “In an age of populism, the progressive artist is the artist who is not afraid of silence.” “A carnival is not a revolution.” “Art is a problem. The man or woman who exposes himself to art exposes himself to another problem.” The theatre must start to take its audience seriously. It must stop telling them stories they can understand.” “When society is officially philistine, the complexity of tragedy becomes a source of resistance.” All the essays that follow expand on these themes. He calls it “theatre of catastrophe”, but the word I keep tripping over in the book is “beauty”. “I like theatre to be seductive,” he tells me, “not rational. To me, it's always been crucially important that a production should be beautiful.”
Although his work – and Scenes is typical in this – is fiercely political, he doesn't believe in “political theatre”. “I don't want to hear somebody's arguments about politics, thank you. I don't want to know the author's conscience, that's his affair,” he says. “Nearly all theatre and all culture now is about projecting meaning. It's very Enlightenment. Go to a newspaper if you want enlightenment: don't go to the theatre.” He finds the idea that people might be influenced politically by theatre “transparently stupid”. “It's far too fragile, far too tentative – that's why it's not a good medium for ideology.”
What he does believe in is tragedy, because tragedy disrupts rational thought and teaches its audience nothing. “King Lear doesn't say anything,” he argues. “It doesn't say what is a king, or what would be a good king.” Although Galactia, at the end of Scenes, expresses disgust at the idea of being “understood” by her public, Barker says it's another of his characters, Machinist from Animals in Paradise, who gets closest to expressing his own view – by refusing to express one at all. He sets himself in stark opposition to playwrights who know what they want to communicate: “I write from ignorance. I don't know what I want to say, and I don't care if you listen or not. On the other hand, I also think I'm privileging you, because I'm giving you, the audience, the outcome of a lot of anxiety and struggle.”
Which is why it's so important to him that his work gets performed. Like Edward Bond, he considers himself “an internal exile”: ignored in his own country, while revered on the continent. (Amusingly, when I ask if he has any relationship with his fellow outcasts, he appears genuinely surprised that there is anyone else who shares this feeling.) Unlike Bond, he has been able to stage a new play almost every year since the late-1980s, with the Wrestling School, the theatre company he set up in 1988 with actor/director Kenny Ireland, taking over as director when Ireland left to run the Lyceum in Edinburgh six years later. The Wrestling School was funded by the Arts Council until 2007, and you can tell how much it rankles that said money was withdrawn when Barker dismisses the Arts Council as “bizarre Soviet-era ideological body”, obsessed with topicality.
Although an ensemble, the Wrestling School effectively operates as a dictatorship. “I'm not interested in collaboration,” Barker says firmly. “I'm interested in getting people to realise what I'm telling them.” That makes him sound as though he has no respect for his actors: actually, he reveres them. “Actors are not like other people. They have this amazing gift of speech which is hypnotic; when they're in that absolute state of complete fluency, they're almost like gods.” When he directs them, he doesn't concern himself with how the audience might receive the work: only with the actors' relationship with his language. “Most directors here say to the actors: 'Are we clear on this point? Will the audience get it?' And I say to the actors: 'Do you get it?'” What he wants to hear is rhythm. “Nietzsche made this point: 'If you don't understand the rhythm of the sentence, you don't understand the meaning.' Fantastic thought. Should be written above the door of every drama school.”
Everything I've read about Barker suggests he's an acutely solitary figure, and imperiousness like this only confirms that impression. He has lived alone in Brighton since divorcing in the 1980s, and traces his preference for solitude back to childhood. He wasn't an only child – he has an older brother – but they weren't companionable, and he didn't have many friends. “I was a solitary child. A solitary child invents friendships and invents his life. Maybe that habit has become fixed in me. To be solitary is to invent – and it's essential to me to invent.” He says this quite seriously: art secures his mental stability. “If I hadn't discovered, as I did at a very early age, writing or painting, I can't say what would have happened to me. I couldn't have survived in the world without that.”
His is “a very disciplined life”. He spends each morning writing, and most afternoons painting: he isn't conscious of a relationship between the two, but accepts that there must be one. “The paintings aren't related to theatre events, but they have a similar quality,” he says. “They're monochromatic oils of figures in a landscape, and the landscape tends to be the landscape of the stage. They're normally about what would seem to be an irrational relationship between figures, floating in a kind of milieu.”
We talk a bit more about his background: he grew up on a council estate in Norwood, a fairly run-down part of south London, with parents who worked in bookbinding factories - “It didn't meant there were any books around.” His mother was a working-class Tory, his father a Stalinist. “It was quite a violent household,” he muses. Just verbally? “Physically, too. That was difficult. But it was good, my background. I've no complaints.” You wouldn't guess any of this to speak to him, because he has a proper RP accent: “My mother sent me to elocution – a grave mistake on her part, because she didn't realise how things were going to be. She thought it'd be nice to have a middle-class child.” He glows when talking about his mother's speech: “She spoke a London argot, a London slang, that had its origins in the 17th century. And she spoke rhythm. She was abusive, she would swear a great deal, she would rant – and when she ranted, she ranted in rhythm. Sometimes she threw up phrases that I knew were centuries old. She also had a tremendous admiration for Shakespeare, because at school – she left school at 15 – they did a few Shakespeare plays, and somehow she got that in her head. She could do a few lines because it was the same language she spoke. That's why rhythm is important to me, I'm sure.”
Just as the voice in Barker's plays is uprooted from our own time, so are his subjects. He started his career at the Royal Court, but quickly turned against it. “I knew there was something I didn't like about the Royal Court: I now understand it was this constant emphasis on the politics. The politics was more important than the art.” He has a similar problem with the National Theatre: “A question you might ask is: what is a national theatre? It seems to me it has to be something: it's not just a big building that does a lot of plays, because then it could be anything. Presumably it knowingly or unknowingly must reproduce the contemporary political consensus.” Reproduces it, or questions it? “No: it thinks it questions it – but that's part of the consensus. We're in a world of what I believe is worryingly called transparency: everything is continually being examined critically. But by producing lots of plays which argue about society, the theatre is merely reproducing the rule of society: it's not breaking it down.”
He abhors “this appalling idea of relevant: every text has to be relevant. If you are writing topical stories with topical themes, I don't think you are thinking about character as such. You're interested in issues. I can't stand issues.” Frequently, the characters he finds himself thinking about are female, and there are an unusual preponderance of huge lead roles for women in his plays. (He looks a bit bewildered when I cheer him for this.)
Instead of the outside world, he looks to culture for inspiration for his plays. Lately, he has been concerned with Pontius Pilate's relationship with his wife and the Velazquez painting Las Meninas. But plays also begin, he says, with the desire to test a hypothesis. “I'm tryign to work something out which clearly worries me at some level, so the first question for the artist is a challenge to themselves. 'Do I really believe that we should love each other?' Let's take that as a question, that cliche which now dominates western culture. Jesus made it a rule that you must love everybody. Now ask yourself a basic question: why should I love anybody or everybody? That's your beginning, the starting point of the hypothesis. Then, for the preservation of your own sanity, you create a dramatic realisation of whether that's true or not true. From there it seems to me each play leads to the next.”
But if he doesn't care for his audience's entertainment, or enlightenment; if he believes in creating stress within his audience, why should anyone watch his work? His answer is typically singular. “If you have a soul – does everybody have a soul? I don't know – but if you do, then there's a necessity for it to be exposed to things. Theatre is a safe place to expose it. To be able to leave a theatre feeling you've experienced something, is powerful and useful to you. I never think of art having utility, but I think it does in that sense.”
Does he have a soul? “Yes. How do I know that? That's a good question. [Please note: he asked the question, not me!] It's not a rational thing: reason is nothing to do with having a soul. Nor is, in a sense, emotion. It is a capacity which probably expresses itself rationally when you talk about it; it's also constructed out of culture. In my opinion, it's not just a personal matter, so if you're not in a way immersed in certain cultural things, you probably don't recognise it.”
What he says about exposure makes me think of fairy tales, which do a similar job of allowing readers to contemplate horror. “That's not a bad analogy,” he agrees. “All my plays as I say are hypotheses and most fairy tales are hypotheses. The trouble with the word fairy tale is it makes everything sound effete and silly. But the great fairy tales go right into the psychosis of society and human nature. The Brothers Grimm – that's a great collection of great texts. Why are gold and money so important in Grimm? Why is there so much killing in Grimm? And quite a lot of sex, as a matter of fact. But the Grimm Brothers were not English – they were German. English culture is utilitarian, it's all about the practical and the businesslike and the observed.” None of which Barker finds appealing in the slightest.