'Scenes From An Execution' review or 'Bloody brilliant building blocks'
'Scenes from an Execution', Howard Barker
Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, Thursday October 4th 2012
Whenever I'm asked to recommend plays, my choices invariably come with a caveat; 'It's slick if not earth-shattering', 'It's funny though pretty slight' or 'The play's a bore but the performances are brilliant.' No such caveats here. Howard Barker's 1984 play, originally written for the radio, is a theatrical treat. It is a strange, surprising, energetic, lucid, complex and hugely stimulating work. It's utterly original too, written by an artist who is incapable of mimicking others or pandering to his audience – or, indeed, his critics.
Which is all rather relevant, since this is a play about a passionate artist – living in 16th Century Venice – who comes into the conflict with the state when she refuses to commemorate a recent battle in a suitably celebratory manner. The Venetian leaders and Church regard the recent, brutal battle of Lepanto as a glorious victory. Galactia, a hesitantly revered local artist, sees it as a tapestry of horror, limbs and bloody bums.
The first glimpse we get of the battle and its effects is with the arrival of Prodo, a solider turned freak show. With an arrow poking out of his head and his bowels threatening to tumble out his jacket, this is a man who has turned his misery into moolah. Fiona Shaw, as Galactia, insists at getting to the guts of his real experience. Soon, the poor man is frozen in horror. Galactia might be sympathetic to the soldiers' plight - and wish to honour their sacrifices by exposing their pain – but she is perfectly happy to scare the soldiers silly in the process. Galactia is not our typical compassionate artist. She is merely an honest one.
In fact, Barker's only attempt to engage us sympathetically with the artist is in his depiction of the sheer effort required of Galactia. She has been commissioned to draw a 100 ft canvas and her attention to every tiny patch of detail is extraordinary. She studies the soldiers so carefully that she learns to mimic their rigid, even comical march. She invites people to sit for the tiniest of characters on her canvas. She wonders whether there is enough colour to match the umpteen shades of brutality she has witnessed; 'I've gotta find a new red for all that blood.'
Shaw's Galactia is a woman who is willing to interact with humanity, only in respect to and for her painting. When a person sits to be sketched, they are Galactia's whole world. Yet as soon as they stand, they become invisible. And that goes for her poor, upwardly mobile daughters too. What's really interesting is the ambiguity that Galactia's skewed emphasis opens up. Are these people who 'sit' for Galactia real or has the force of her imagination simply made them so? There's a coolness to the performances of these sitters that allows these ambiguities to throb nicely and director Cairns is careful to let these questions linger. This is a production that is brilliant at holding two, three possibilities simultaneously; the sign of a brilliant and humble director and a beautifully flexible play.
Although there are many lucid arguments in here about the responsibility of the artist – to her work, her subject, her family, colleagues and reputation – it's actually in the space around the words that the most interesting points are made. Hildegard Bechtler's set adds superbly to the debate. The production opens with a speech from the 'Sketchbook'; readings from Galactia's research notes voiced by a chap who looks a lot like Jay Jopling. This character voices his (or her) artistic theories from a bright white cube that stands above the stage. It's a pertinent location for this 'character', which suggests that what we think or theorise about art still remains a great distance away from the final product.
As the play progresses and Galactia stubbornly pursues her own agenda – regardless of the rumblings from those in authority – the 'Sketchbook' character moves about more freely. Perhaps Galactia's theories are now interfering with or even obstructing her art? What's intriguing is how cleanly all these inside and outside voices interact; the possibly imagined musings of Galactia with her sitters, her writings in her sketchbook, the response of the visiting art critic – all these voices come from such different domains, real and surreal, yet they all inform the final painting. A finer representation of the complexity of voices that inform great art (and the conflict between those voices) has rarely been contrived.
The positioning of the characters on stage accentuates the debate but so too does its physical design. Whenever the canvas is 'revealed' we are shown only a massive grid of squares, which stretches across the stage. It reminds one of those grids that artists construct to work out their proportions and suggests a lady at risk of losing her own sense of perspective. Indeed, when Galactia is sent to jail, it is the grid – this grounding device for all artists – that she is locked behind.
As the production develops and the resistance towards Galactia's art work builds, the set starts to subtly resemble a piece of modern art. Massive colour blocks are dumped – almost with a perverse disregard for aesthetics – around the stage. It's as if art itself has persistently and quietly moved on, despite the forces that threaten to prohibit its growth. In the final moments, when Galactia is brought back into the world and her work's shocking impulse pacified by a clever critic, the crowd observing her work is frozen in a beautiful vignette. It's one of those perfectly open moments; Galactia's strangely casual return to the fold (she even accepts an invitation to dine with the very people that shut her away) is hard to take. It's seems a bizarrely passive ending to such a combative play. But the image that remains is that of the crowd frozen in front of her painting, their reactions creating something beautiful that not even Galactia could've imagined.