Blok/Eko by Howard Barker


I saw the Wrestling School perform Howard Barker’s new play Blok/Eko last night at the Northcott theatre in Exeter.

It’s exciting that the university and theatre have found a way of making this research and work happen. Click here for info about the collaboration.

I haven’t managed to find any reviews yet. It’s hard to know where to start with a response. Especially as I find describing what I saw on stage boring, and anyway I can’t do justice to it.

Like the initial sequence of a choir of doctors punctuating the silence with ‘Kryie Eleison’ conducted by a naked woman conducted by a man limping across the space.

The space was huge and bare. Like a warehouse, the side lights were visible. It felt like there was a whole world behind the performance space too.

Sometimes props came down from the ceiling, like trees at the end and torn garments (doctors’ coats?) at the beginning. But basically the space was empty.

But not empty. Not really ‘stripped back’ either, in the sense that other productions feel stripped back leaving the words to work too hard. Because the theatrical images were so strong, they filled the space. And because Barker’s writing is so strong it never struggles for a second. I think the difference between this and the ‘stripped back’ new writing productions I’ve seen recently (e.g. by the ATC) is that this production was entirely connected to the writing, it was collaborating with the text rather than scared of it.

Barker directed, and the actors completely inhabited the words and the characters. They were in total control of their craft. They visibly relished the chance to get their voices around these words. It felt like I was seeing actors act for the first time in my life. I mean ‘act’ in the positive sense. With their whole bodies. Yes – artifice – not naturalism. The world that was created was a whole world, not trying to comment on our world, not trying to be ‘realistic’, but entirely theatrical.

The Queen (Eko) only communicated in song or through a female attendant. Eko’s voice was amplified somehow, using a bone conductor microphone perhaps? Several of the actors (I’d give their names but can’t find them anywhere – apart from Shaun Dooley off the tele who was fantastic as ‘Tot’ the talented poor poet) had incredible vocal ranges and resonances. The melody and rhythm of the writing was stretched out in the delivery. The couple of different accents/approaches to the text – Dooley’s and the London gun renter – enlivened the writing, made it communicate more directly, revealed the nuances to it and the shades and humour within the characters. Made it more dangerous in a way; RP can be too smooth.

Here’s the blurb from the flyer:

Imagine a world in which they’ve killed all the doctors in order to let the poets become the healers. In this place of desire, violence and beauty the story of a Queen’s lifelong passion for her servant plays itself out against the backdrop of a broken realm.

There are two poets in this world, one’s an idiot and wins the Queen’s poetry prize each year and the other (Tot) is brilliant, never wins and lives in poverty, robs a post office, goes to prison, loses an arm (no doctors) comes out and at the end commits suicide. Which makes it sound simple but it’s not really told quite like that.

There are many layers and lots of elements I can’t explain. Such as one of the women constantly collapsing, the strange swing at the back of the space – brilliant image, reminded me of one of Heiner Muller’s impossible(?) stage directions: ‘on a swing, the Madonna with breast cancer’ (Hamletmachine)

It raised questions about what artists need to make art. Do we need support, funding, recognition, money? The strange despotic Queen reckoned the poet wrote better when struggling and incarcerated, and that the singer’s best work would come from the experience of death…Do we need struggle and suffering to make art?

& I loved this idea that the world had become silent through drugs and injections and pain killers…that somehow those screams and the noises of pain create a kind of poetry…

Just before the interval the rich poet handed the poor poet money, but he didn’t let go so they were each holding onto this paper money fighting each other with poetry. Words used as weapons. Made a fantastic montage/soundscape.

Then it was the interval and I felt shaky and a bit sick. First time in ages that theatre has affected me physically.

Just before going back in a fellow writer told me she was only staying for the second half as she was hoping they were going to tell her what was going on. It’s strange to me – that you might need to know what the story is in order to enjoy the work. There was a story, it was pretty clear, but we were never given a lecture about how it came to be and what the characters thought about it…they were too in it.

I suppose the story of Blok and Eko was pulled out in the second half. Blok was the servant and song writer. Brilliant actor – an intense way of speaking with head down and eyes piercing up at us.

Usually my mind wanders in the theatre. I think I was gripped partly because I wasn’t being spoon fed, it was a new experience, pushing at the edges of theatre –something was happening. I haven’t seen any of Barker’s previous productions but, unlike some of the later work of other legends – Robert Wilson, the Wooster Group, Richard Foreman…it felt that there was nothing formulaic about this. He’s still taking risks.

So why isn’t this work on at The National? Why aren’t there any reviews of it? Why are theatres censoring playwrights? Why this obsession with naturalism and story and character? I recently read:

It’s exhausting to still be repeating admonitions by Witkacy, by Artaud, by Tristan Tzara. Didn’t Gertrude Stein fight this battle already? Didn’t John Cage?’ (Helen Shaw, foreword to Mac Wellman’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field )

On the topic of what is too much or too little on stage (part of Barker’s current research) I wasn’t convinced by the choruses. Partly because – although they performed very well – I was too aware that they were students; they looked too young, too studenty. And because the core actors were so strong anyone else on stage was diminished. Perhaps it would work better in a larger theatre, with more exploration of the choreography. There’s lots more that could be done with their vocal parts too, soundscapes created with the chorus rather than on a soundtrack would be great. And I’m not a fan of geometric marching and sudden right angles…or futurist hats…

Female nudity was quite a feature. The initial image of the naked conductor was brilliant. Nudity was used several times, and always impacting. It seemed to be saying something…something…women have bodies and men have words? Certainly both language and the body were weapons. But they were all wrestling with language in some way, trying to find the right word or just trying to get a word out or…in…in…in…

29 thoughts on “Blok/Eko by Howard Barker

  1. Thanks for your thoughtful review.
    It isn’t easy to follow Barker from this side of the Atlantic.
    I think your “fellow writer” …

    Good luck!

  2. Hi there, I’m Gerrard McArthur, one of The Wrestling School cast, & I played Blok. I just want to thank yu for such an incisive & interesting review here, it’s really appreciated. The culture here is sick with Naturalism. The national rationalists are utterly aggressive in their shutting down of the kind of experience & theatre that Howard has been developing with an astonishingly clear & rigorous mind over the last twenty five years at least. Of course all these battles were won, but then just ignored and buried, in Anglotheatre culture- it prefers to have this knd of experience with subtitles- we’re not allowed to pursue this here. I recommend yu read ‘Death, the One, and the Art of Theatre’ published about 3 years ago, a short, compressed poetic musing and manifesto by Howard, which I think from what yu say here, wd be very up yr street. We may be having a ‘bare’ showing of Blok/Eko in London for one night only, at Rada on the 28th, in the large Vanburgh theatre. It’s provisional as yet, & I’ll come back here to let yu know: if there’s anyone yu think shd see this, that wd be great, esp, I see u’re involved at The Barbican with a piece- if someone from there wd come, that wd be good. We used to have an international producer, so we ‘re looking for someone who cd take up that role. Thanks again, your work sounds really interesting, good luck with yr piece, I’ll try & catch it. I’m on Facebook, if that’s easier communication.
    Best, Gerrard

    1. Hello Gerrard,

      It took me a few days to check messages as I’ve been ill. I’ll have to figure out a way to avoid the spam filter!

      You were incredible as Blok, as I said in my post, so I’m very happy to hear from you! – And to be able to credit that performance – I couldn’t find cast details online anywhere and I didn’t get a programme – perhaps too dazed by the experience! I’m also sorry that my post seems to be the only review/reaction to the showings in Exeter, others should be out there.

      I have read ‘Death, The One, and the Art of Theatre’ and of course ‘Arguments for a Theatre’ a while ago. But this was the first time I’ve seen a production. It’s shocking that this work isn’t seen more often in this country and hugely supported. This obsession with naturalism is so damaging. It is censoring the next generation of playwrights and preventing theatre from evolving. And actors who only perform naturalistic work struggle with anything else – which was why it was so fantastic to see you and the cast embody the writing so fully.

      I’ll be in touch,

  3. Thank-you for this, Hannah. It’s the first thing I’ve seen written about it. I saw the first night, what, ten days ago, & I still can’t find words to describe it. It’s the most powerful piece of theatre I’ve ever seen, & the most original. I’d given-up. My only connection with it remained Barker. Some of his writings. But what really struck me about this, was how the dramaturgy had evolved. The courage of construction. Not that there should be anything written about it, of course. It exists for those who experienced it. Three nights in the South-West. Then gone. There is something equally demanding about that as well. Equally rigorous. Equally empowering. I’ve just got hold of the text. Quite different. Staggeringly good. Making you realise yet again what a production this was, where as you’ve said, everything was gained in the translation, because it was connected to the text. If it was a production at all. The programme stressed its form was provisional. Yet even within that, essay, there was artistry. There was acting to die for. There was plethora/from bare sufficiency. Charles V, it says, a play of one word, will follow it next year. So will I …

    1. Hi Stephen,
      Thanks very much for your comment and for reading my post.
      I’ve ordered the text, looking forward to seeing the difference between text and production… that’s always interesting.
      Even if what we saw was work in progress….it’s in a different league to most productions – ones with a 3 week rehearsal period where the actors have hardly got their heads around the work and it’s on tour. I get the impression this was developed over months…years? That’s a question for Gerrard…
      I’m also looking forward to the one word play!

  4. Hi Hannah

    I’m a South African Student Theatre-Maker. I am fan of Howard Barker (for various reasons) but would just like to say, that in South Africa, the likelihood of seeing Theatre like you have described is non-existent. It’s mostly musicals and operas that operate on such a scale. (I would have loved to have seen it!).

  5. Hi Gabriella,
    Thanks for reading. It’s very unusual to see such work here – and was only possible through the collaboration between Exeter University and the Northcott theatre – funding came from the AHRC which is the ‘Arts and Humanities Research Council’ – rather than the Arts Council.
    It’s a tricky area – most writers write work on a small scale for studio spaces as there is so little chance of having something large scale produced…

  6. A pleasure to read your remarks on Blok/Eko, Hannah — like Libas and gabriellapinto, I’m too far away to attend the production itself, and the lack of notice from the rest of the critical community is … well, perhaps not puzzling. But unfortunate. Thanks for this!

    1. Hi George,
      Great to see you here, I’m a fan of your blog.

      When I was in the theatre I wasn’t planning on writing a response, I was just taking in the experience, there’s a lot more to the piece than I managed to convey in my personal reaction so I really hope others will respond to the London performance, and look forward to seeing that. I’d love to see a debate about current fear of non-naturalistic, truly theatrical writing and performance.

  7. Thanks for your review. You definitely brought attention to some of the defining features of Howard Barker’s work, such as when you write of the characters that they “visibly relished the chance to get their voices around these words. It felt like I was seeing actors act for the first time in my life. I mean ‘act’ in the positive sense. With their whole bodies. Yes – artifice – not naturalism. The world that was created was a whole world, not trying to comment on our world, not trying to be ‘realistic’, but entirely theatrical” and that “It’s strange to me – that you might need to know what the story is in order to enjoy the work. There was a story, it was pretty clear, but we were never given a lecture about how it came to be and what the characters thought about it…they were too in it.” Thanks for writing about this for those of us to far away to attend.

  8. Hi Hannah.
    Thanks for the review and the blog.

    I’ve just got back from the London performance at RADA tonight. What an immense privilege it was to share that. I immediately ordered the text.

    I’m from South Africa, and have been a reader of Barker for years, but this was the first Wrestling School (co)production I have seen. While reading everything I could, my first performed Barker was a very good Scenes from an Execution at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg in the mid 90s.

    I loved BLOK/EKO. So timely. For me, it viscerally articulated many of the currents at work in the contemporary ‘culture/civilisation wars’. The temptations and revulsions. The victories and sacrifices. There is so much to reflect on.

    The acting was phenomenal. The word was made flesh by those actors. Bodies burned in the saying. There were moments of real magic, of an intense public intimacy that is emblematic only of theatre.

    I could go on, but I really only wanted to share my response, and express my thanks to all those involved in the production who read your blog. It was a genuinely stimulating and gratifying evening. In… in… in… incandescent.

    Zane Hannan

  9. Hi Zane,
    Thanks for your comments here. ‘The word was made flesh by those actors.’ – yes…that’s it.. words become structures….he really builds, sculpts with language. I’ve also got the text, looking forward to getting into it.

  10. Yes, I too like ‘the word made flesh’ – thank you Zane, Hannah and all for your responses, as they help me revisit what was indeed a very powerful night at the theatre – I saw the ‘bare bones’ production at RADA, and really didn’t miss a thing, (although your description of the theatrical images sounds tantalising). I was slightly apprehensive to learn that the second act was one and a half hours long, but it seemed almost over before it had begun, I was so drawn into the flow of the work, and like Hannah, gripped till the end. What seemed to draw me, pull me in and hook me, was indeed the word, the spoken word. Not the meaning of the words, but the sounds of the words. I was lucky enough to attend the Wrestling School summer school last year in Exeter – a great few days where you really get the chance to grapple with Barkers text and have a go at speaking it. I took away from this a renewed conviction of the power of the word, not so much for the meaning, put the power of the visceral, embodied SOUND of the words, as so brilliantly demonstrated by the cast of Blok/Eko. I don’t think I have ever experienced anything quite so chilling at the theatre as Jane Birtish’s Singing Queen, where all the lines were delivered on a kind of sung changing monotone – I can’t really find the words to describe it! Would like to try this with my students.
    So come on all you funders/producers – know something worthwhile when you see it, recognise a jewel when you come across one. Lets get this work onto a wider platform.

  11. Correction: ordered.

    When it arrives I will digest Hunka’s text alongside BLOK/EKO, which I am already eating, slowly, lasciviously.

    Text as host.

    Bernadette, I completely agree with you about EKO’s cracked delivery. At first I thought it was recorded, not only because of its dispersion through the speakers, but because of its aura of the disembodied. It was almost a shock when I realised it was live, the grain of the voice fractured through the wires. Then it became, for me, almost hyper-bodied, flesh at the limit of its sonic representation, monotone only because of the lack of a form adequate to its need. And this was only compounded when that same amplification and delivery, that rolling assemblage, almost as an act of grace, emerged from BLOK as he was being positioned as laureate, slack on his throne at the edge of the stage.

  12. Was Eko/Jane Birtish using a bone conductor mic do you think? The sound was incredible. What do you mean by ‘monotone only because of the lack of a form adequate to its need’? – do you mean a lack of vocabulary to express the sound that we heard? I think you’re talking about that use of voice that’s in between song and speech – but not really ‘sprechgesung’ – at least not in the way I’ve worked with that with a composer…
    – Blok/Gerrard McArthur amplified his voice with his physicality. There can be a lot of bullshit taught about ‘resonators’ but these actors really know how to use get the voice to resonate…
    I saw ‘The Pitmen Painters’ the other day and there was a real lack of that physical and vocal technique – they were either shouting or inaudible. They dropped out of character as soon as the lights went down…I’d love to see Blok/Eko in a really big space, to enjoy the sounds from more of a distance (I was in the front row in Exeter).

    It’s phenomenal to read. There were layers I missed when I saw it, I was so engrossed in the lines and the poetry. Reading it, I actually remember every line – very odd – I was paying so much attention to the language. Why the slashes in between sentences rather than line breaks? – a different kind of punctuation? The glass breaking and Nausicca collapsing works as punctuation too. Anyway I have some inferior poetry of my own to prepare. [performing at Latitude this weekend in case anyone is there!]

  13. Make sure you read it before you eat it 🙂
    I ordered a copy too, maybe Edinburgh reading or maybe I’ll need a brain break and go for a thriller…

  14. Hey Hannah!

    Hope all’s well with you.

    Did you get to the Barker mini-festival at the Print Room this weekend?

    I couldn’t get off work to see the Friday shows, and because of bus chaos I was a little too late for the Saturday evening performance, but I got there just in time to catch the post-show chat. I suspect that it was because it was clearly a home crowd (all mainly theatre people), that the participants could feel more comfortable speaking openly within the discursive field of shared experience, but I found it an exceptionally stimulating discussion.

    Someone was videoing the chat. A member of The Print Room staff said it was for the Wrestling School’s archives, but I do hope they make it publicly available.

    I never realised Barker was such a good actor! I’ve never seen him so physically expressive and communicatively light and playful before. Yet he was also very soberly empathic and compassionate towards a couple of questioners in the audience who, by their questions, suggested they had lived through some very difficult personal experiences. During tonight’s discussion, these immensely human qualities were clearly on display, and made plain why Barker is such a great playwright. Most particularly, it was evident that those who accuse Barker of pure intellectualism, haughtiness, and so on, completely miss the point.

    Barker is unusually verbally eloquent, yes. Often, even ‘perversely’ so. However, this is not a purely intellectual or rebellious affectation. For too many, it is, rather, the disastrously alien and tragically unintelligible articulations of the embodying self, the self struggling to find its voice in its lived, yet mortal, body, in the catastrophe of encountering the world into which it is thrown. Barker’s language, made riveting flesh by actors such as McArthur, is the ecstasy of this realisation of the fatal embodied self, in all the lethal materiality this implies.

    Here’s the post I made on The Print Room’s Facebook wall:
    Thank you for your Barker festival. The post-show chat was excellent. Barker seemed more relaxed, at home, and unguarded than I’ve seen him before, and this was reflected in the depth and transparency of his responses. But definitely one of the highlights for me was Gerrard McArthur’s description of the experience of acting a Barker text. Not since reading people like Grotowski and George Hunka’s Word Made Flesh have I heard such an articulate and accurate description, from the inside, of the shamanic experience of acting. As an ex-actor myself, this was deeply appreciated.
    Thank you, Print Room, for such a valuable experience!

    For those interested, have a look at George Hunka’s Word Made Flesh:

    The Facebook page for the book:

    The website of The Print Room:

    Their Facebook page:

    Also, for those who don’t know, the Wrestling School’s website:

    And their Facebook page:

    1. Apologies for cutting and pasting stuff from my posts elsewhere, but I do also want to add to the conversation here. So, one more comment:

      I was grateful for the thematising of the comedy in Barker’s work last night.

      While Barker was chatting, it was plain to see that he has natural comic timing, and is a very funny person.

      I also loved the mention of Shepard (his earlier off-off-Broadway experimental stuff, anyway) and, particularly, Beckett in that context. In performance, I’ve found Beckett to be one of the funniest writers around. But, as was discussed last night, it is the acknowledgement and exploration of both the tragic and comic which seeds the anarchic, ecstatic element here, giving permission, within the dark alchemical laboratory of the theatre, to explore the full range of human emotions and experiences, and, especially, to experiment with, feel one‘s way into, sense, and attempt to articulate, to give language and expressive, communicative embodied form, to radically new experiences.

      This is, I feel, part of what one can almost call the evolutionary practice of catastrophic theatre.

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