A Hard Heart
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
November 9, 2007
What to say about Howard Barker's inscrutable political allegory, A Hard Heart? First of all, I'm assuming it's an allegory because that seems to be the only explanation for a play that seems to defy one. I wish I could say I knew what this play is about, but I don't. Despite Epic Theatre Ensemble's heroic attempt to make sense of Barker's sphinx-like text, A Hard Heart ultimately comes off as a riddle that only the author knows the answer to.
Set in a fictional time and place, the play centers on a nameless country in the throes of war. The Queen, Praxis, must defend the capital city against a strong enemy army, and engages the services of Riddler, a certified genius, to devise a strategy to do so. As befitting a genius, Riddler has a bunch of unrealistic demands (such as wanting total silence to work in, even though explosions proliferate throughout the city). She also has a grown son at home named Attila who...well, I couldn't exactly say what he does or why he is there. He just is.
Then there is Seemore, a raving homeless citizen who develops a romantic fixation on Riddler (who does not like to be touched, mind you: "the proximity of others bruises me," she says). Part of the story involves the slow, gradual softening of Riddler's heart as she warms to Seemore's attentions.
The rest of it revolves around Riddler's continuing attempts to defend the city and outwit the opponent, both of which work at first, then don't. Praxis and her right hand man, the militaristic Plevna, begin to view Riddler's genius with increasing skepticism and uncertainty. Then, Riddler devises a last-resort plan involving a sacrifice seemingly so big that Praxis has to decide how large a price she's willing to pay to achieve victory.
So, what is Barker trying to say with all of this? I couldn't say. The script is so opaque it feels as if the author wrote it merely for his own satisfaction and everyone else be damned. That's how inaccessible and unwelcoming A Hard Heart is. The end result is a work that comes across as excruciatingly pretentious and self-indulgent.
Director Will Pomerantz understandably struggles with the play's thematic clarity, and presents a polished, professional looking production that moves as swiftly as possible (which, considering that it's full of leaden and overt platitudes like "I've been under siege all my life. I've built walls since I was a child" and "It's the penalty of genius: pain," is not very). The design team of Narelle Sissons (sets), Lenore Doxsee (lighting), Chris Rumery (costumes), and Mark Huang (sound) do a terrific job evoking the play's bombed-out environment: Huang's theatre-rattling explosions are especially effective.
The cast does their best to pump some life into A Hard Heart, and at least succeeds in looking like the good, talented actors they all are. But, since the script is so impenetrable, there's really nothing for them to play. Any attempts at cohesiveness are constantly undermined, and the lack of anything tangible for them to latch on to results in several performances that look like they belong in a different play. This is not a good showcase for any of them.
A Hard Heart is my first encounter with Barker and, considering this British dramatist's famed reputation, it is a severe disappointment. The kind of experience that makes one invoke Shakespeare: "Much ado about nothing." Epic Theatre Ensemble, a talented company committed to political and social issues, can do better than this, and I sincerely hope that they do next time around.