The National Theatre being, well the National Theatre, ‘greatness’ is expected from the productions it presents.
With this in mind, I felt more than happy to take a friend along last week to see a play neither of us knew anything about, save its title, cast and its location. Said play was Howard Barker’s Scenes From An Execution, directed in this instance by Tom Cairns.
Barker’s script acquaints us with Galactia (Fiona Shaw), an eccentric, determined and notably female artist, in her attempt to paint what she really wants to paint, her own unique vision of a battle scene, under the sinister yet just about well-meaning tyranny of her powerful patron, Tim McInnerny’s Urgentino. Just as infamous throughout her home city of Venice for her unsupported chest and lovers as she is for the quality of her work, Galactia is distressed to find herself increasingly attached to her young lover, Carpeta (Jamie Ballard) as the pressure from the powers that be to make her Art more sympathetic to political causes mounts.
Upon first glance, this might appear to be a simple ‘woman versus state’ story. But it’s much more than that. For one thing, Galactia is far too three dimensional a character. She battles with her feelings, her age, her daughters, her sexuality, her own creative temperament as well as society’s view of her just as much, if not more than she locks horns with her interfering sponsor. Scenes From An Execution is also far more philosophical than a linear individual versus Government narrative, questioning the very nature of Art itself, the importance of ‘the eye of the beholder’, as well as loyalties personal, professional and political.
Not least of all is Shaw’s mesmerising portrayal of the artist. Her scenes with Tim McInnerny in particular, are electric to the extreme that, strong as the rest of the cast are, scenes in which these two do not appear seem dull in comparison. Phoebe Nicholls is compelling as Rivera, the Art critic, a character which manages to tie several strands of the plot together quite tidily, as well as throw open an entirely new set of questions about Art itself as both a discipline and pleasure.
Speaking of tidily, it does feel as if the play ends just a little too neatly. Happy endings and smiles all around, whilst leaving the audience on a high, doesn’t entirely seem to suit the questioning, somewhat subversive subject matter of a play that suggests we re-consider authority and opinion.
The production values, however are fabulous and, in choosing subtlety over swagger where needed, perfectly give sense of scale whilst never appearing overdone. Hildegard Bechtler’s design demonstrates is especially brilliant in its treatment of the narrator figure, as well as with Galactia’s painting itself. There’s also a charming contrast between natural imagery, such as the onstage rocks used as beds on a few occasions, and the square shapes of the set’s room spaces, mirroring the inherent contradictions and conflicts of the play’s own content.
Whilst the play does lean towards the side of academic interest, whether or not you find yourself particularly interested in Art, and its relationship with the world it depicts, the performances alone are worth your ticket price. Greatness has long been the expected norm of productions at the National, and here, as the play itself warns us, ‘greatness beckons’.
Scenes From An Execution is running until Sunday 9th December, at the National’s Lyttleton Theatre.