The original Star Wars film was released in 1977 and on the eve of that film’s latest installment I find myself queuing instead at the Young Vic for one of Britain’s lesser known productions of that very same year: Barrie Keeffe’s fantastically entertaining yet emotionally demanding play, Barbarians.
Entering the theatre, I decide quickly that the best way to go into this play is with a few pints already down. This is an economic and practical way to get in the general mood of mayhem, hooliganism and youth in revolt.
Be sure to have a full, fresh one in hand as you wander into the theatre, already thick with artificial fog. Ready yourself to meet the cast’s intimidating stares set to jarring guitar feedback with equal ferocity, because like it or not, you’ve just become part of the play.
Although it could be painted as such, Barbarians is not your typical ‘coming of age’ story. This play follows three best mates as they try to figure out whether or not it’s worth trying to earn an honest living during the economic downturn of the 1970′s. They all went to school or did work experience, but once they see their old careers officer at the Job Centre, all bets are off.
We follow our anti-heroes through three distinct phases of young adulthood as they try desperately to find a purpose in life, no matter how big, to become part of something bigger than themselves and to discover, no matter how cliché it may seem at first, the true meaning of friendship. This journey is heart wrenching, and given its relevance to the young audience in attendance this evening, so it should be.
The Young Vic’s style of seating for this particular production allows me to be virtually court side. I momentarily fear for my life at the flash of a blade, reach out for a bottle of gin as it’s passed around by the players and cheekily flip through a 40 early old pornographic magazine handed to me by an actor at the end of a scene, half aware of the 60 year old man and his wife peering over my shoulder.
As is often the case with dark humour, however, eventually the seriousness jarringly overshadows the laughs. A feeling of voyeurism takes over when great injustice and unspeakable violence is committed, while we, the audience, remain powerless to help.
Nearly 40 years have passed since the original production was staged in London, and yet everything about this performance is strangely topical. Director Liz Stevenson chose not to makeany upgrades to the script, such as adding modern technology or replacing the theme of racism with some other nagging, societal problem, as if to suggest race in 2015 is no longer an issue.
In fact, all these years later, Barbarians still has something to say, a lesson to be conveyed and audience to inspire. As we watch, there is not a single member of this audience not confronting their own racial prejudices, reexamining stereotypes, questioning friendships and sympathizing with the circumstances of people they’ve never met before.
For all of these reasons and many more, this play has a disturbingly fresh and authentic feel to it.
I leave the theatre with an empty glass and a pit in my stomach, but the good kind. As if I’ve somehow witnessed the truth. No matter how painful it was, it had to be reckoned with. This feeling is obviously felt by the actors as well, as they seemingly feel the need to reconcile, even after they’ve dropped character, picked themselves up from the floor and are taking their bows.
Words by Cais