At the heart of I Saw Myself is a woman – a powerful, self-aware, sexual, physical woman. This is Eve before she was castrated by the Abrahamic religions. She's not good, but she is strong, and glories in that strength. She's a Western Kali – whether she uses her power for good or evil is, to her, incidental.
The woman, the queen, is Sleev, played here with passion and breath-stopping charisma by Geraldine Alexander. As the playwright Howard Barker writes in the introduction, "we know the epic status of the faithful wife." Here he grants the same to the faithless. As Sleev not so much says but proclaims: "I'm not Penelope, that flaccid packet of fidelity."
Sleev manipulates the women and men around her like sacrificial pawns. She's super-intelligent, manipulative, and magnificent, and with a different set of genitals she'd have made a superb king – a young Hal, but with brains. She plays games to stave off ennui, and is disappointed that no one can compete. We get little sense of her husband, killed in battle, but he was obviously no match for her. The only person in this troubled court who sees through her – though is still unable to resist her because of the barrier of class – is her "best maid", Ladder, played with sophisticated, passionate restraint by Jules Melvin.
This is a grand tragedy, in a tradition familiar for more than two millennia. Yet there's something new and fresh in the previously unstageable honesty and the preparedness to see and engage with women on their own terms. (It's hard to believe it was written by a man.) Unlike their predecessors over many centuries, these characters aren't trapped by stage convention into being metaphors and symbols for sex; when they talk about sex, when they have sex, it's presented in all of its full frontal humanness.
There's also great sophistication in the chosen setting, an unnamed medieval court, which allows the great feminine metaphors of weaving and sewing to fit within a naturalistic frame. It allows too the introduction of the sophisticated symbolism of the period — you'll think often of the Lady and the Unicorn, and the Bayeux Tapestry — with drooping or perky black roses, frisky otters, and rampant weeds.
I'm not an expert on medieval tapestry, but if this play's description of its conventions isn't entirely accurate, it certainly feels true. We hear how the main narrative of the tapestry is by convention a story of men's lives, of battles and kings, with women's lives fitted around the edges. It's hard not to cheer when Sleev proclaims, "The subject of the great stream will be me." "Never has the life of a woman filled the great stream."
Barker, and Sleev, are determined not to be trapped by any convention. "My tapestry is true. If you want history weave another one." Both are focused entirely on emotion, not morality, and concerned with what is. In this perspective that means only what is felt, not what should be.
All of this feeds into action and words that are often richly comic, the laughs coming not from slapstick, but from witty, sharp, biting wisdom, both verbal and physical. "It keeps the body, anger, like vinegar," Ladder observes sharply of her mistress. And Richard Cotton's vignette of Guardaloop (Sleev's son-in-law and lover) as a strutting popinjay, hormones uncontrolled by brain cells, after she's promised herself to him for an evening is a small masterpiece of expressionism.
That's not to say this is a perfect play. It would benefit from shortening; as soon as Sleev disappears from the central focus it weakens, particularly after the interval, when what should be grand and gripping sometimes crawls. It is no fault of Eleanor Montgomery, who plays Keshkemmity, the well-meaning but dim lady-in-waiting, or Julia Tarnoky as Hawelka, the self-centered, weak one, that you often wish they'd sit down and shut up; their roles, as a kind of hysterical chorus of stereotyped femininity, are where the play is at its weakest. They show how religious tradition has warped, limited, and constrained the female spirit — but we knew that already.
Also, though much is made in the staging and the programme of the metaphor of the mirror, it never quite convinced me, or felt real. A delay in the dimming of the house lights, with the audience looking at itself, is the only time when the staging rings false. And when Sleev is looking at the mirror she's seeing neither her real self, nor an idealised self-image, but the entirely real naked male body that she's got stashed behind it.
Nevertheless, this theatre that is beyond and above fashion surely has a better chance than most of surviving the test of ages. It's therefore of little surprise to learn that The Wrestling School, the specialist company that produces only Baker's work, lost its funding in the last round of Arts Council cuts. The company is now being supported by a private benefactor. And with Barker's concern for the grand themes – the grand tradition of European theatre stretching back to Aeschylus – it isn't entirely surprising to learn that he's been far more celebrated, and more performed, on the Continent than in the UK.