A dying former Nuremberg judge consigns his priceless library to the bonfire. As he rejoices in this wilful barbarism, his delinquent daughter discovers a bizarre obsession and his executed victims appear in unexpected forms. His passionate desire to meet the arch criminal who evaded his prosecution is at last satisfied when Adolf Hitler arrives… to discuss painting.
A cast of 16 including a chorus of sadistic nurses and 3 snarling dogs created a surreal, startling and compelling kaleidoscope of images, ideas, movement and powerfully poetic language.
Howard Barker’s approach with Found In The Ground was unique in his recent work; startling, grotesque, stimulating, an exhilarating challenge to both language and design but threaded with a cruel black comedy and a host of characters whose all too human weaknesses, dreams and desires we all too readily recognise.
‘The whole thing reeks brilliantly of sex and death… Barker prods at the worm of private desire eating away at the public face of history…’
‘the play is striking, strangely watchable… the stage equivalent to a cubist painting…’
‘Barker’s language is some of the most visceral on the British stage. Barker has gut wrenchingly choreographed his cast into dizzyingly slick stage pictures… This universally superb cast’s sacrifice is evident for all to see…. Love it or hate it, it is undeniable that this piece will leave an indelible stain on both one’s body and mind.’
Howard Barker on Found In The Ground
We’ve had to wait a while to be able to do this play as its scale was beyond our resources until now. It is a play of images and echoes from the Hitler period to the more recent past. At the centre of it is an ex-Nuremberg judge whose contempt for his own culture compels him to destroy his priceless library. His librarian and his daughter struggle to make sense of these actions, moving from love to hatred and back again.
Found In The Ground is entirely impressionistic, with a cascading number of scenes, all related but not always consecutive. So it operates differently from all other plays of mine, by breaking down the narrative that has always been at the centre of theatre in my and nearly all dramatic text.
It is not a tragedy. The characters don’t pass through the ordeal of their experiences, they react spontaneously, or carve out places for themselves in which to live. I would call this a play of landscape rather than identity.
Hitler makes an appearance towards the end of the play. Of course it is impossible to put Hitler on stage in any historical sense. But I didn’t intend to do that. I take a fragment of him, entirely imaginary. He is a visitor to the place that he has (and the twentieth century has) created.
The production marks 21 years of The Wrestling School. In 1988 we were simply satisfied to be mounting a large play at all. Now it stands for something, an aesthetic which is controversial of course, but international in reputation. I couldn’t have foreseen that. I couldn’t have foreseen how many enemies we would make, nor how many friends. The Company’s methods have developed, its aesthetic is refined, and I think its identity is now so distinctive I never think of it being in the theatre at all. It’s somewhere else...
Found In The Ground was at
FROM ITHACA TO AUSCHWITZ: A PERSONAL REFLECTION ON FOUND IN THE GROUND
A mythic, musical sounding of the strata of extermination, Howard Barker’s Found in the Ground is an oratorio to Europe’s slaughtered. Ranging across a landscape extending from Ithaca to Auschwitz, Found in the Ground divines the structure of a continent Barker has called “Death’s estate.”
Among the most formally ambitious of Barker’s plays, Found in the Ground is complex, intractable and thoroughly modern in its use of the culture, going far beyond the literal representations of cinema or the fragmentary sensationalism of the popular media.
Performed by The Wresting School at Riverside Studios, the play was received in profound silence by an audience alert as sitters at a séance.
The stage was unadorned. There were no curtains or backcloth, only some gauze netting pinned to the walls like rotted shrouds or mats of spider webs. By exposing the normally concealed passageways around and behind the playing space, Barker evoked pits, trenches and graves.
Three metal-toothed, mechanical hounds suggested Cerberus and concentration camp dogs. They moved diagonally across the stage on rails, which became both the shining surface of the Styx and the iron way to Auschwitz. Those empty passageways also came to represent the dried-up riverbed of Memory.
The soundscape to the pre-play Exordium was a discomfiting combination of dog whistles and the incessant sound of machinery. Television sets showed the ruins of Europe’s war-bombed cities. Flames came from a furnace burning with books: a culture being systematically destroyed. Smoke hung in the air.
Into this demimonde came the semi-naked and faceless Macedonia (Vanessa-Faye Stanley), inching across the stage, shouldering a way through the unfamiliar twilight: learning to be dead. Throughout the play she intoned the occupations of nameless women destroyed in the Holocaust, a counterpoint to the masculine heroes and warriors of The Odyssey.
The first speech set a tone of musicality and incantation and immediately the symbolism was ambiguous – the image of a woman standing to urinate. Pregnancy or pornography; an unselfconscious act of nature or the consequence of extreme terror? Strip then/Strip off your bra… the personal reverie of Toonelhuis (Gerrard McArthur), or his recapitulation of a demand made by the camp commandants he judged at Nuremberg and whose clay like remains he periodically consumes.
Confined to an electric wheelchair, Toonlehuis was a planchette on a talking board seeking to conjure up the spirits of the dead. He succeeds with Knox, the ‘spirit of a war criminal’, who revels in the memory of escalating misdeeds and his mathematical game with God. Played by Julia Tarnoky, Knox was a freewheeling Pierrot and an exuberant assassin. Tarnoky created a sequence of loose-limbed movements to portray the vertigo and the exhilaration of the recently dead, body not yet gone, voice still audible, animated by libations of blood. It was a thoroughly Barkerian performance. Finally, through Knox, Hitler (Alan Cox) appears, first a helpless child of Europe and then her thwarted lover. This spectral Hitler drifts on eddies of chance encounters in lonely places.
Toonelhuis’s daughter Burgteata (Suzy Cooper), like him named after a civic theatre (gates to the underworld?), is a Penelope who unravels herself in consorting with the wounded and the dying. Her arias are a defiance of domesticity, their notes alternating between wonder and weariness.
Other protagonists were: Denmark (Kyle Soller), a trope on Hamlet, who slowly finds the means to repudiate the culture that fetters him; the Workman (Nigel Hastings), a Lawrentian figure who carts books to the furnace, careful to keep an alphabetical order to his task; Lobe (Michael Vaughan), whose servitude is a discipline and a morality constantly under siege; the Nurses (Georgie Alexander, Megan Hall, Charlotte Moore and Leah Whittaker), provocative Sirens to the living – or the soon to be dead - conveying the mortal remains of Nuremberg victims (Hoss, Funck, Delbuch, Klysek, Rimm) when not sunbathing, contemplating affairs or running to catch a bus.
There were a number of changes to the published text: for example, the physical interactions on stage were less violent than the original stage directions allowed. These decisions emphasized the sung nature of the piece – making music rather than an attempt at meaning.
Barker wrote in the programme notes: ‘the work of art disdains virtue, providing instead exquisite irresolution’.
At a Wrestling School performance such as this, we experience the wanting that lies at the heart of waiting.