Barrie Keeffe asks the near-impossible in his powerful and complex play Barbarians. He wants us to sympathise with a pair of racist, working class skinheads. And he very nearly succeeds.
The play dates back to 1977 with this Young Vic revival following close after a much-talked about version over at the former Central St Martin’s building in Holborn.
The three-part play sees a trio of loutish but chipper young lads from Lewisham getting themselves into regular sitcom style scrapes. Meet Paul (Brian Vernel) and Jan (Alex Austin), two white mates who are looking for work and hoping they can — as the young Maggie Thatcher says — pull themselves up by their Doc Marten straps. Louis (Fisayo Akinade) is their black buddy, a bit of a dreamer with a few more prospects because of his technical skills — he insists he could be a refrigeration expert.
United by their joblessness, teenage testosterone and a vague anger born out of boredom and the sense they are being kept down, they decide to steal a car. When that doesn’t quite work out they nick some booze, then try to blag their way into the cup final match. That’s it for plot — which is fine since Keeffe loads the interactions with enough semi-poetic banter and bickering to keep the blood pumping. The play is never dull thanks to bold performances and Liz Stevens’s live-wire direction: she has the three actors barrelling through the audience, kicking the hardboard set and freaking out a fair few people sitting on the front row.
We do feel for these kids who insist that “England looks better upside down”. But as the play heads towards its fractious finale, Keeffe pushes the idea that while a bit of cathartic violence is unpleasant it is also understandable. He loads the dice, so that family ills, lack of prospects and fear of failure conspire to make race-hate inevitable. It’s tough stuff, especially in the Young Vic’s intimate Clare Theatre with a multicultural audience arranged on opposite sides of the stage so you can see the reactions to lines like “nigger cunt” that pepper the final third section.
Shane Meadows presented a similar view of the skinhead as victim in his 2006 film This Is England — which stands as a companion piece to the ideas Keeffe first presented in this play. But whereas Meadows separates the loutish but loveable lads from the sieg heiling zealots who come crashing into their world, here those two personae are conflated and so we’re asked: can we forgive these misunderstood kids we liked so much at the start of the play for their later cruelty?
The answer is no — and it’s something that has never felt more relevant than in this age of terror attacks and mass shootings. We can feel sorry for the underprivileged and disenfranchised but extremism is extremism and it is reprehensible whatever caveats come with it.
Barbarians runs at a The Young Vic, 66 The Cut SE1 8LZ, until 19 December. Tickets £10/£15. Londonist saw this play on a complementary ticket.