Theatre: Barflies

Never before has a theatre piece given me nightmares. There was the time that I saw Woman in Black at the New Theatre but I was more scared of old women’s chuckles than anything else after that. Barflies, the award winning play by Scottish site-specific theatre group Grid Iron, left me waking up breathless last night awoken from sour images of bodies exploding and hearts ripped apart.

An unusual thing to say about a play? Well, until last night I would have agreed.

Nonetheless, Barflies which plays at the increasingly doomed Vulcan on Adam Street to a crowd of no more than forty people is a  dynamo of emotion, disgust and challenges to our social attitudes based on the works of American writer Charles Bukowski.

Even with a cast of just three, Grid Iron bring a gritty performance which tells the story of Henry Chinaski, one of Bukowski’s autobiographical creations. Lead Keith Fleming plays Henry himself in the perfect image of Bukowski complete with excesses of dribble that coat the front row, myself included, in saliva each time he swings his head in a drunken craze while Charlene Boyd plays all of the women in the play – five in all – with a wonderfully convincing set of performances. From the mad lady to a witch to a publisher, she weaves through the performance changing not just costume but personality each time.

Until I saw Barflies, I always felt there was something missing from theatre and I couldn’t put my finger on it. But now I’ve worked it out: every play I’ve seen so far has lacked two scottish people grinding each other at great length on the bar of a Cardiff pub while the audience grows increasingly uneasy except for one lady in the front row who appears to be grinning more and more with each grunt. Fortunately, Barflies contained that event on more than one occasion, although the second time was on a table in the centre of the audience much to the distaste of a middle aged woman who winced so much that she looked as if she may implode at any moment.

Talk about breaking the fourth wall.

Even though there’s not really much of a story woven in among the three short stories, two poems and dozen other extracts of Bukowski’s work, there’s enough challenge of social attitudes to make up for it.

In one scene, Henry hands his liver to Sarah (his ultimate barfly) on a platter and in return she pulls a heart from her chest which was presumably inside her clothes for an inordinate amount of time, hands it to Henry before he starts cutting it wildly with a knife, sending small parts of it flying into the front rows, unwittingly. At this point, everyone is praying that they’ll escape without heart, red wine or saliva on them.

The play ultimately succeeds in what it means to do: portraying the life of an alcoholic while challenging all of the comfort zones of the middle class audience who try their hardest not to show disgust, worry or ghasp at all while the sad horrifying piece is played out.

While this may all sound disdainful, the piece is a great play and thoroughly recommended if you’ve a strong stomach and a strong heart.

Barflies deserves all of the praise that it has received from the press and public. I think the feeling that we’re left with after watching the play is best summed up by director Ben Harrison when he writes “You wouldn’t want to live Henry Chinaski’s life, you wouldn’t want to have his liver or his penury or his appalling living conditions. But in a paradoxical way you are glad he is there, and if we don’t let a little of Chinaski into ourselves maybe we are the poorer for it.”

Thank you Grid Iron.