SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION
by Howard Barker.
Lyttelton Theatre Upper Ground South Bank SE1 9PX In rep to 9 December 2012.
TICKETS 020 7452 3000.
Review: Carole Woddis 13 October.
Painting a political picture in vivid words.
Scenes from an Execution (1984) is probably one of Howard Barker’s most immediately accessible plays. In a sane world, Barker would be a national treasure,
his plays firm fixtures in the national repertoire. But, feted in Europe, Barker is largely ignored here.
To some he must seem his own worst enemy, the establishment of his own company, The Wrestling School devoted to only his work a monstrous act of egotism.
But encountering Barker occasionally now is like taking a bracing shower. It may be a shock to the system but it is also completely exhilarating. There is a tautness and juicy colloquial swing to his dialogue still rarely matched by today’s younger writers. You feel he gets right into the armpit of human relations and personal-public strains in this highly political drama about the politics of art and the forelock-tugging compromises artists have to indulge in when dealing with public bodies, be they Doges of Venice, the panjandrums of the Arts Council (or critics?).
Scenes from an Execution was written at the height of the Thatcherite arts cuts when Left and Right were locked in unrelenting ideological battle. And it is through this prism that Barker unfolds his account of the commissioning of a piece of public art to celebrate Venice’s shared victory at the 16th century Battle of Lepanto.
Unusually (now, as then) a woman painter, Galactica, has been chosen by the Doge to paint the picture. What follows is a guileful exploration by Barker exploring the battleground of female creativity versus male power.
In Tom Cairns’ spare production, dwarfed by flytowers and huge colour-splashed canvases (another Hildegard Bechtler tour de force), the sides are pretty evenly matched. Fiona Shaw, breasts unfurled, in best mocking, free flowing form, plays at fever pitch as she struggles to convince Tim McInnerny’s Doge – himself caught in a political cleft stick – that the only truth she is interested in showing is the gore and horror of war.
It makes for thrilling theatre although the size of the Lyttelton ultimately blunts the overall and political edge of the debate. Still, a welcome revival.
The Sketchbook: Gerrard McArthur.
Galactia: Fiona Shaw.
Carpeta: Jamie Ballard.
Prodo: Jay Simpson.
Urgentino: Tim McInnerny.
Supporta: Gráinne Keenan.
Dementia: Rochenda Sandall.
Suffici: Robert Hands.
Rivera: Phoebe Nicholls.
Ostensibile: William Chubb.
Sordo: Ian Hallard.
Pastaccio: Mark Extance.
Lasagna/Official: Lucas Hare.
Workman/First Sailor/Gaoler: Iarla McGowan.
Albanian/Second Sailor/Man at Exhibition: Robert Galas.
Third Sailor/Man in Next Cell: Tom Peters.
Mourner: Robyn Moore.
Ensemble: Jennifer Jackson.
Director: Tom Cairns.
Designer: Hildegard Bechtler.
Lighting: Peter Mumford.
Sound/Music: Ben & Max Ringham.
Company Voice work: Kate Godfrey.
Associate sound: Ben Vernon.
This production of Scenes from an Execution opened at the Lyttelton Theatre, London on 4 October 2012.
Scenes from an Execution was first staged at the Almeida Theatre, London in 1990.