Thought-provoking and well-acted, if confusing at times, this debut stage production of the 1985 BBC teleplay Pity in History hits hard. Howard Barker’s symbolist account of an attack on a cathedral’s iconography and artworks in the time of Oliver Cromwell has been rather unconvincingly repositioned into the present day, but it still hits home with a strong multipart message about the nature and importance of art, the significance of honest work, and the frightening sectarianism at our core.
A mortally wounded cook named Murgatroyd (a spitfire performance by Jonathan Tindle), his invective as hot as his oven, refuses for the longest time to die, and what lies beyond appears not at all promising. A troop of soldiers march in and out shouting jingoistic slogans asserting their side’s absolute righteousness. And Venables, a royalist war widow played in stately fashion by Kathleen Wise, directs an artist-mason in memorializing her husband in stonework that cannot survive the hammer-wielding, idol-smashing troops led by the relentless Factor (Jay Dunn).
In Steven Dykes’s magnetically compelling portrayal, Gaukroger the mason is at once a bossy, money-hungry blowhard and the humane soft center of the hard and bloody nut in which he and his apprentice, Pool (a sensitive performance by Matt Ball), find themselves. Seeing the seeming hopelessness of a life of honest art and commerce, Pool quits to join the revolutionary army, but finds he can’t fit in with its rigid intolerance. Returning in funny fashion to the cathedral where the artisans’ labors are falling down around the lingering Gaukroger, he embodies Venables’s aphorism – and Barker’s message – that “We have to have art or we don’t know who we are.”
The play questions whether the two warring sides of human nature can ever be reconciled. The answer it suggests doesn’t bode well. Yet as a polished, powerful, challenging piece of art itself, it offers a silver lining of hope too, as fit – and urgent – for our wretched new millennium as it was for the blood-soaked century from which it arose.