What she gets with Howard Barker's Victory, which opened at the Wharf Theatre last week, is not so much a loaded gun as a full-firing AK-47. An ageing enfant terrible of British theater, playwright Barker creates his own "theatre of catastrophe" by taking aim at history, whether the 1683 Siege of Vienna in The Europeans or the 1571 Battle of Lepanto in Scenes From an Execution. With Victory, for which Davis auditioned when it premiered at London's Royal Court in 1984, the battlefield is the post–Civil War reign of Charles II.
"What kind of monarchy is this?" the returned Stuart (Colin Friels) asks his court, breeches round his ankles, having just had his way with his mistress Devonshire (Marta Dusseldorp). It's the Restoration, silly. And Barker trots out his defeated Puritans, dim-witted landowners and disgruntled cavaliers as lambs to be slaughtered by his withering wit: Milton on amphetamines (the poet, too, gets his comeuppance). It's an actor's feast, of course, with 36 roles shared among 11 players in this production, although the best one is saved for Davis, who co-directs with Benjamin Winspear.
The show's star is a corpse: John Bradshaw, head of the court that sentenced Charles I to death, is exhumed, drawn and quartered as the play begins, a symbol of ravaged nationhood. So Davis must settle for the part of his wife, Susan, who spends the play scavenging for her husband's remains. Despite great slabs of satire on the nature of monarchy, banking and literature, Victory turns on her journey - and what a journey it turns out to be. "Any fool can rob his enemy," she says, caught stealing from a band of fellow Puritans. "Where's the victory in that?" Grief-stricken and raped before becoming the pregnant confidante of Devonshire and comforter of the King, Mrs Bradshaw embodies "the wisdom of compliance."
Compliance is not a characteristic normally associated with Davis, whose performances on film have often bristled against the constraints of the medium. But here her character's emotions are allowed the color and scope of the events that sweep Mrs. Bradshaw along, molding her but also being molded by her "lovely quick hands." The speech in which she passionately defends her compliance ("no is misery and lonely nights") is but one of a half-dozen moments when the seemingly sparrow-sized Davis holds the 300-seat theater in the palm of her hand. It's spellbinding stuff. No doubt some will find argument with Barker's language (the c-word is used as freely as punctuation) and view of history (he's clearly no monarchist), but they won't see a livelier, more cantankerous production this year. Barker has said that his plays are not histories but mirrors to contemporary society. And one senses that much of his ire was reserved for Margaret Thatcher, whose reforms were transforming Britain at the time this play was written. "I hate you," Devonshire tells the King, who replies that hatred is "only passion back to front." Victory is a brilliant backhander of a play, with Davis providing the passion.