Lusciously dark is the only way to describe Carnival Theatre’s take on Howard Barker’s Victory. Taking place in an absurd and fictionalised version of Charles II’s Restoration, the play centres on Susan Bradshaw (played by Bea Udale-Smith) as she journeys through a world in upheaval to find the scattered pieces of her husband’s corpse… It is as bizarre and grotesque as it sounds – featuring dismembered limbs as props, vile language, and sumptuous costumes. The scenes I saw combined a frenetic, animal energy with royal pompousness – the result is a world that is overflowing in excess, both of charm as well as brutality. Director Julia Pilkington says she was attracted to Barker’s unique use of language which clashes rich poetics against coarseness and vulgarity. I was struck by how darkly compelling the scenes I saw were: grief, sarcasm, animality, and hilarity bubble through the language and physicality of the cast. I witnessed Bradshaw and Scrope (Alex Rugman) crawling like dogs and climbing out windows, King “Charlie” (Adam Diaper) throw a tantrum and take his trousers off during his coronation, and royal mistress Devonshire (Rosa Garland) describe the colour of a baboon’s bum whilst trying to seduce the King. The cast’s dexterity in moving through abrupt tonal shifts was impressive; balancing the absurd against moments of tenderness and humour. Udale-Smith in particular was terrifyingly compelling as she portrayed Bradshaw’s grief with something that is perhaps best described as pathetic desperation.
To match this rich script, Carnival Theatre have created a sumptuous aesthetic. Mia Parnall’s costumes should be applauded for their debaucherous magnificence. Marie-Antoinette style wigs, embroidered bloomers, billowing dresses, and capes help embody the bacchic moment of the Restoration. When I asked about the sound design, I was told that Nathan Geyer’s compositions feature ‘jangly, abrasive, warped harpsichords’ to match the historical dissonance of the setting. It is clear that the cast and creatives are highly invested in matching the text’s excess as they build a truly fantastical world. Pilkington’s passion for the project is infectious. She described how the cast channel various animals in rehearsals to spice up the many minor characters. She comments that even smaller characters have fantastically poetic lines, and that she wants to do them justice by giving them ‘a smack of colour’.
In this riotous production, my only worry is that the excess of character, language, costume, and sound might overwhelm, preventing some of the emotional impact from landing. I’m reassured by comments from the cast, such as when Garland spoke about the work they had done on deciding when to invest characters with depth and when to render them as comic grotesques. The luxuriousness of the spectacle is strikingly ambitious in scope, but I have faith in the team’s execution (pun intended) of this vision. Overall, Carnival Theatre’s production promises to be one hell of a romp, and should not be missed. The dedication of the cast and crew to creating this succulent and brutal world is truly exciting, and I wish them all the best.