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Theatre in Review: No End of Blame: Scenes of Overcoming (Potomac Theatre Project)

Jonathan Tindle, Steven Medina, Alex Draper, Alexander Burnett. Photo: Stephen Barouh.

Howard Barker has a thing for artists who go against the temper of their times. Last summer, Potomac Theatre Project (PTP) staged his play Scenes from an Execution, which focused on a female 17th-century Venetian painter whose epic murals of men in battle rattle the local authorities with their bloody honesty. This summer, PTP, which has a thing for Howard Barker, presents No End of Blame; the protagonist, Bela, a political cartoonist, goes even further, managing to get on the bad sides of two national governments. A fictionalized version of the German artist Victor Weisz, Bela's lack of fealty to any particular position except the truth -- no matter whom it scalds -- makes him a threat everywhere he goes. It's no mean trick to upset both Lenin and Winston Churchill, but he manages it.

Barker has conceived No End of Blame as a kind of Brechtian panorama extending from 1918 to 1975, and at least three passages crackle with dramatic tension. In 1925, Bela is called up in front of the Writers' and Artists' Institute in Moscow; his colleagues are treading very, very gingerly -- after all, Lenin himself has noticed his talent -- but Bela has published an offensive cartoon in which he has dared to suggest that the Kremlin looks elsewhere while capitalism preys on old Bolsheviks, and he must be made to face his error. One by one, they insist, he isn't to be punished -- they would never, never try to censor him -- but a little self-criticism can do wonders for one's soul. "We want to stimulate you," he is boldly, and falsely, told.

Even so, the truth must come out, even if accidentally. "Artists are very dangerous people," one of them says, "That is why they go to prison. That is why they have gags stuck in their mouths. They are more dangerous than tanks and planes. It's a terrible power, this power of addressing hearts and minds, articulating the unspoken will of peoples." Bela turns his infallible gift for irony on them, saying they have made him, "who is so small and insignificant," into "a colossus towering over you;" he actually chastises them, saying, "You should not do that. It makes me ashamed."

Bela tears up the cartoon, but his time in Russia is limited. Several years later, he emigrates to Britain, ending up on Fleet Street, where he finds a place as "Vera of the Mirror." In 1943, having offended Churchill with a cartoon that takes on war profiteers, he and his publisher are called on the carpet by representatives of Whitehall, who, teacups in hand, bully them with threats of detention for Bela and closure of the newspaper. No End of Blame was written in 1981 and audiences must have been scalded by Barker's suggestion that England might, in its way, be as repressive as the Soviet Union, especially when fighting a war against fascism. The carefully controlled viciousness of Bela's antagonists is brilliantly realized; even in liberal democracies, we are told, freedom of speech is in as short supply as butter and sugar.

Bela finally gives vent to his own rage in a scene set in another newspaper office in 1960. He is still a fixture of the popular press, but his employer has grown tired of his ruthlessly unhumorous cartoons -- we see one, depicting a mushroom cloud over a planet littered with skeletons -- and, anyway, he is in his seventies and ripe for retirement. (He is to be replaced by a cheeky lad, right out of art school, who is more than ready to cater to his publisher, "who can actually laugh at postcards which show bald Englishmen at the seaside who have lost their dicks.") Bela, however, only sees that he is, at long last, having made every compromise in the book to keep on working, being silenced for good, and his response is scorching. He furiously rejects the idea of a published retrospective of his work -- his employer's idea of a gold watch -- refusing to be made into a commodity: "They want to make me into art, do you know why? 'Cos art don't hurt. Look at Goya. His firing squad. I seen it on stockbrokers' walls! But I still hurt, see I touch their little pink nerve with my needle....They're so much happier lying dead. But I twitch 'em. I shock the bastards into life."

Lest you think Barker is interested in sanctifying Bela, I hasten to add that he remains a doggedly difficult figure throughout. We can understand compromises made in the service of living to fight another day. But in the opening scene, set in the Carpathian Mountains in 1918, his attempt at raping a pathetic war victim is frustrated only by the appearance of Russian soldiers; he abandons his wife, Ilona, who is eventually killed during wartime. ("I must say I am very bitter with my bit of history," she says, before machine guns cut her off.) After his censure at the hands of the British, he reacts by trying to seduce the office tea lady.

Typically, Barker has no interest in Bela's psychology; he remains a slightly remote, essentially mysterious figure throughout. Also, in stretching the play's action over the course of nearly sixty years -- often leaping several years between scenes -- the playwright has dispensed with any of the connecting tissue that might hold the story together. We don't really understand the dynamic of Bela's marriage or his off-and-on friendship with Grigor, another artist who turns up in his life time and again. For that matter, it's never really clear how, given his iconoclasm, Bela lasts on Fleet Street for two decades. He appears to have no personal relationships in England, and the script's insistence that he is interested only in "the truth" proves oddly alienating. Surely, he has some kind of world view that can be explained, but Barker never really tries.

Also, there's a highly variable quality to the play's baker's dozen scenes. In addition to those already mentioned, an encounter between Bela and a squadron of rebellious RAF officers seizes one's attention, especially when they challenge him to expose the horrific killings of innocents in wartime. ("This is worse than when we had Bertrand Russell," frets their commander.) But an early scene depicting him fleeing art school feels pretty pro forma and an eleventh-hour sequence set in a mental hospital doesn't provide the climax that the play could sorely use.

For all of this, No End of Blame never fully relinquishes its grip, and under Richard Romagnoli's direction, an excellent cast delivers Barker's most mordant observations with deadly accuracy. As Bela, Alex Draper (who also played the role in 2007) provides the play with a solid anchoring center, his tremendous self-possession and piercing gaze having an unsettling effect on the most determined antagonist. There are also first-rate contributions from David Barlow, both as Grigor, Bela's unlucky (and, perhaps, only) friend, and as one of his British oppressors; Jonathan Tindle, as a variety of antagonistic authority figures; and Christopher Marshall in several roles, most notably the editor who forces Bela's retirement.

As is the case with Good, which plays in repertory with No End of Blame, Mark Evancho's set design is decidedly spare, in order to keep the action moving at a headlong pace. It's unclear who did the projections, which include cartoons by Gerald Scarfe and drawings by Barker, but they are extremely effective. Hallie Zieselman's understated lighting helps to reshape the playing space for each scene. Aside from the odd detail -- did lady comrades really wear stiletto heels with their uniforms? -- Danielle Nieves' costumes tellingly span the decades, from peasant skirts to air force uniforms to form-fitting box dresses. Seth Clayton's sound design includes effective sounds of battle.

Like Good, No End of Blame isn't quite a total success; Barker's singular dramatic approach is too uneven, his steely point of view sometimes coming off as stentorian and alienating. But also, like Good, it has plenty to say to an audience in the summer of 2016. PTP has always stood out, presenting meaty food for thought in summer seasons dominated by frothier fare; with this two-part repertory, the company is eerily in synch with our troubling zeitgeist. -- David Barbour

(18 July 2016)

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