The warm welcome I received from all the staff at the Former Central St. Martin’s School of Art, not forgetting the free copy of Barrie Keeffe’s 1977 play Barbarians, was a sharp contrast to the hard-hitting, emotionally-charged play that I was about to witness from the Tooting Arts Club.
Following the lives of three diasaffacted young men -Paul, Jan and Louis – marginalised from society as a result of their unemployment, with the year in which it is set being one of incredibly high youth unemployment, 1977, the resurrection of Keeffe’s play addresses many issues that are still prevalent in society today.
Composed of three one-act plays, the first play portrays the only black member of the group Louis as a snake who has to creep up behind a hairy-arsed Tory and steal his keys in order to obtain a 3500 Rover. The depiction of Louis as criminal then proceeds on to unintelligence – which is how many people perceived blacks in the past as a result of the belief that black people were biologically closer to monkeys so were thought to have smaller brains. Yet, the two white males who hatched the plan beforehand without Louis are completely oblivious to their racial offensiveness. This foreshadows the white supremacy that will be omnipresent over the duration of the play.
What needs to be remembered is that irony underpins the entirety of Barbarians.The portrayal of black people as overly promiscuous appears ironic towards the end of the final play as Paul finds an advertisement in a newspaper of a black woman called Rosie looking for love yet assumes that all she wants is sex which seems to be more on his mind than anyone else’s. The interconnectedness of racism and sexism leaves Paul punished, however, as Rosie ends up not showing up with her friend which Paul presumes will be more than willing to submit to Jan’s advances.
In spite of the hard times the three men face, they all seek solace in attending football matches of the team they support of the red devils that are Manchester United. Initially all their raison d’etre, Paul becomes increasingly obsessed with the beautiful game and asks the other two to check their priorities when Louis decides to attend an educational course whilst Jan wishes to attend a cadet training session on the Thursday that the next football game will take place. Although Paul’s outburst is initially amusing to the audience, it also shows how passionate people can become about a single entity when devoid of a job or purpose. Ironically, the factory jobs that Paul labels as ‘jobs for bints’ becomes the job that he holds at the end of Barbarians.
There is a constant establishment of hierarchies throughout the production. When the trio express little wonder at being called animals on account of feeling that is how they are treated, a scene is performed when they are at the game in which Manchester United are facing Stoke City and they release a succession of bestial noises and movements that seems to assert a hierarchy that humans are superior to non-human animals. Later instances in the play prove such a hierarchy to be unnecessary as a result of allusions being made to the ‘blacks of the jungle’ and the perpetual predatory behaviour displayed by the three men.
The objects and materials used within the production act metaphorically. The wall at the football stadium performs the function of dividing the wealthy from the poor. The glass window also there is significant as it provides the notion that while things are well within sight, they are not always within grasp. The play’s reliance on dichotomies further adds to the seemingly hopeless lives of the male youths.
Louis’ lust to be James Dean at the start of Barbarians is an impossibility given that Dean was white. Symbolic of blacks wishing to have the privileged status of whites in society, Barbarians makes this unattainable. This is representative of many young people finding it nigh on impossible to find a full-time job yet the current government praises itself on an increase in youth employment, whilst neglecting to tell the general public what proportion of that increase in composed of those on zero-hour contracts.
The settings within Keeffe’s play appear ironic. One of the lads asserting that they should unite over their love for Manchester United is proven wrong as upon discovering Louis’ knack for electrical engineering, each member takes from that a different train of thought. Jan decides to join the cadets while Paul opts for maintaining his obsession with football for what else does he have? It would appear nothing but it is made clear he has white superiority and in abundance too with Jan agreeing whole-heartedly in how ‘flash’ and ‘hoity-toity’ Louis has become towards the end of the play in which they meet by chance at Notting Hill Carnival after a time of separation. The two terms are noteworthy here as the action of a flash results in something being made lighter which has connotations of race whilst ‘hoity-toity’ highlights the issue of class.
The lights of the emergency services are not just conducive to the scene in which Louis is left fighting for his life after a pride-fuelled attack from Paul but highlights the dire nature of Britain’s current political situation. Though the jokes that arise from each character’s stupidity relieve the tense atmosphere of the plot, these moments of light relief also act to make the audience aware of people’s ignorance with regard to social prejudices as a result of not experiencing them first hand. The inclusion of obvious expansions upon other characters’ points delivers the message that one should be made aware of the daily discrimination that takes place before their eyes.
Ultimately, the repertoire of acting skills shown by the three lads was faultless. Much like the opposites expressed within the play, Thomas Coombes, Jake Davies and Josh Williams could go from flirt to fierce, sensitive to brutal and rational to barbaric in a heartbeat. Akin to the biblical reference made by Louis of his admittance that he used to attend church, this trinity of actors was divine. The resurrection of Keeffe’s Barbarians seems pertinent to give new life to now. Let’s hope that the careers of the fine actors aren’t in need of resurrection any time soon.