Thursday night saw the opening night of the UK premiere of Howard Barker’s Lot and His God at the Print Room Theatre in London, giving further support to the statement that Howard Barker is one of Britain’s greatest living playwrights. As the name suggests, the play takes as its inspiration the story of Lot and the destruction of Sodom by the Angels of God (Genesis, chapter 18-19), but I would urge you not to let that mislead you into thinking that it is only for the religiously minded. The action does present a man called Lot and his Wife on the eve of the destruction of a filth-ridden Sodom, there is an angel who has the power to blind, make dumb, consume with fire and ultimately destroy, but that is pretty much where the resemblance to the source ends. For instance, the depraved actions of the citizens of Sodom, who in the Old Testament story are presented as even wanting to rape the visiting angels, are epitomised in the play by a run-down cafe and a waiter who wipes tables in a surly manner; Lot, whilst displaying moments of compassion for the ‘punished’ waiter, is far from a model of virtue; and the angel, Drogheda, bears far more resemblance to the carnally-challenged Angelo of Measure for Measure than an emissary of a ‘just, righteous and holy God.’ Rather than being about anything overtly religious, the play borrows religious ideas and biblical characters to convert them into symbols with a wider, perhaps even universal applicability. What the play is ‘about’ is ultimately up to each member of the audience.
Consistent with his beliefs that theatre should not be a place where the comfort of quick consensus is sought, Barker has written a play that challenges the audience, that forces us to grapple with the questions it raises whilst conjuring contradictions and thwarting any desire for a readily available answer.
This does not mean that the audience does all the work. The play is undoubtedly the product of an extraordinarily gifted poetic mind: demonstrating abundantly the aptitude that great poets have for going to the very root of what it means to be human, confronting those aspects of life that are common to us all and yet full of mystery, coupled with the ability to present these universal themes in a way that enables a multiplicity of interpretation and embraces the often paradoxical nature of those themes. Furthermore, this is achieved with a masterful concision. The play is not long, and yet it opens up more avenues of thought than you would think you could usefully travel along in a week.
If the play itself is a remarkable piece of art, it is certainly given every chance to achieve that status by this sensitive and committed production. The direction of Robyn Winfield-Smith coupled with the dedication of a uniformly excellent cast supports a play that might in lesser hands become highly conceptual and head-based. The intellectualised, at times highly self-conscious discourse of Lot, is balanced by the writhing bodily presence of Vincent Enderby’s waiter inhabitant of Sodom as well as by the emotional undercurrents in the responses of Justin Avoth’s superb Drogheda to the depraved city and Lot’s provocative wife, but I felt that the inner contradictions of each character have been mined and allowed as full an expression as possible.
Whatever you may think of Howard Barker’s uncompromising adherence to his own particular aesthetic – possibly at the expense of not seeing other people’s points of view and thus falling prey to misrepresentation as being somewhat misanthropic or haughty – and leaving to one side the question whether such judgements ever get us anywhere anyway, I would urge you to go and engage with this production. In the light of Lot and His God, Howard Barker the man recedes and the poet emerges: a poet of vision, sensitivity and relevance. This production certainly parts the veil that is so often drawn over our lives by our daily preoccupations. Whether you will be amazed, disturbed, comforted or appalled by the experience will perhaps be down to what you find to be revealed behind that veil.