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Dazzling virtuosity of a poetic dramatist

WOUNDS TO THE FACE. By Howard Barker. Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh.

It came as no surprise to recognise two English teachers in the audience for Wounds to the Face. Playwright Howard Barker is one of the very few writers nowadays who are still willing to address an audience with a poet's voice, or still able to excite, delight or stagger us with the breadth and brilliance of their ideas.

If Barker's plays are a rare pleasure to audiences, then think what joy texts of this quality are to actors and directors, who have to live with their lines and characters on a daily basis, for weeks or months. Maybe there is an element of gratitude as well as self-interest in The Wrestling School, the name given to the association of actors, designers and directors who make most of their career out of a commitment to the challenge and reward of performing Barker's work.

This latest play, his 21st, takes as its theme the human face, and the ways "we walk behind" the one we have and interpret the ones we see. We meet the young woman moodily studying herself in her mirror, the war-damaged soldier listening to his plastic surgeon, the dictator forced into disguise by his unpopularity, the jealous lover and her razor, the emperor being shown his unsympathetic portrait.

Barker catches them at their extremes of feeling, and gives them voice in a twisting and startling dialogue that catches the audience's ear like a fish-hook and will not let it go. The actors show their relish for the material by responding with the kind of exactitude in performance that can only come from devotion and painstaking rehearsal.

The "company" programme prevents the spectator from identifying the actors, so I cannot name the actress who begins the play with a soliloquy of dazzling virtuosity, several minutes long, and with every syllable played with meticulous care. Anywhere else, this might be a brilliant exercise in technique; here, it is the thrilling echo of what the writer has heard in his mind's ear.

Neither can I name the actor who looks like a butch Gerard Depardieu, but whose thunderous resonance parades Barker's vehemence like a brass band. In fact, all seven of the company treat their lines like the precisely-notated poetry it is, while new perspectives on our human affairs angle in from all directions. Together, performers and writer create some of the purest theatre of our time.

Until August 30.

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