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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Lyttelton)


  Fiona Shaw and Robert Hands/ Ph: Mark Douet

Howard Barker’s caustic, polemically irreverent Scenes From An Execution begins with a full moon – though not in the traditional sense of the phrase. "After the battle the waves were clotted with men’s bums," declares the fictional female artist Galactia, "reproachful bums bobbing the breakers, shoals of matted buttocks..." This great rhetorical fart in the face of what should be glorified history sets the tone for an evening that is exhilarating in a manner similar to a rubdown with a loofah. Its overt focus is on how the 16th century Venetian artist Galactia should paint the Battle of Lepanto, but the flinty debates it generates about the relationship between political dictates and artistic integrity create a heat that still burns today.
The play was originally written for the radio in 1984, when it starred Glenda Jackson. Now Fiona Shaw is the latest star to take up the baton (or should that be paintbrush). She does so with a charismatic androgynous swagger that shines the light on the controversy of Galactia’s genius as much as it does on the fact that she is female. Legs splayed, often bare-breasted, she is buffeted by her passions as if they were whirlwinds – one minute she’s groping her lover, the male artist Carpeta, at a funeral; the next she’s agonising over the way to make more vivid the ugly viscera of battle.
Barker’s decision to make Galactia a woman is interesting on several levels, not least when you consider that had she really existed her main competitors would have been Titian and Tintoretto, who both painted more patriotic versions of the event. The comparison with Titian is especially interesting. While both formally and in his use of colour he was a radical, he was so adored by world leaders that on one occasion the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Spain reportedly stooped to pick up the artist’s paintbrush. The most important aspect of Galactia’s femaleness is that it places her firmly outside such establishment cosiness, making her a kindred spirit to her famously rebarbative creator.
Tom Cairns’ elegant, witty production plays compellingly with the irony that while the script focuses on the power of images, true to its radio origins we never see the picture that reaps such political complications. Giant abstract screens on either side of Hildegard Bechtler’s set evoke the monumentality of Galactia’s design without revealing its detail – language is the great painter here, and the muscular vividness of Barker’s words provide all the necessary colour. Shaw’s physically and intellectually uncompromising performance – one of her best – is beautifully balanced both by Tim McInnerny’s artistically sentient yet repulsive Doge, and by Jamie Ballard’s submissive, shallow Carpeta. As with Galactia’s depiction of the Battle of Lepanto, Barker muddies the battle-lines of argument: No one individual is truly glorious here, and Galactia herself is as prey to selfishness and delusion as she is exalted by visionary integrity.
At its most basic level, this play can be seen as a declaration of Barker’s own uncompromising stance. Famously he believes theatre should be a "taxing experience," and in a recent interview he said, "The greatest achievement of a writer is to create a character who produces anxiety." Yet the central wrestling match between the realistic artistic depiction of war and politics also proves an eternal theme. Just think of Shostakovich’s controversial eighth symphony, which shocked audiences with its pessimistic reaction to the Soviet victory at Stalingrad. Or, much more recently, the Lebanese government’s furious reaction to the depiction of Beirut as a violent city in the American series Homeland – a reaction sadly succeeded by an eruption of violence that negated the tourism minister’s outrage.
This is an evening that allows us to reflect on all of this – bitingly savage, refreshingly lucid and excoriatingly witty. It’s of course ironic that Barker is being so splendidly showcased by a theatre that embodies part of the institution he’s always challenged, yet the experiment reflects flatteringly on both parties.


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