Thursday, 27 September 2012

Scenes from an Execution.

To the National to see the first preview of Howard Barker's Scenes from an Execution starring Fiona Shaw as the sixteenth century Venetian painter Galactica, commissioned by the state to create a huge canvass in celebration of the State's naval victory over the Turks at the battle of Lepanto.

Galactica wants to focus on the sinewy horror of the battle. After all 40,000 men lost their lives in less than four hours, but her vivid style and bloody depiction disturb the authorities who would prefer a glorious tribute to the triumph of good over evil.

The dialectical argument on censorship and patronage is a good one and Barker's skill is in making both sides resonate with intelligence and truth. The final moment is key as the work in finally being accepted is rendered immediately impotent and Galactica, recently released from prison to celebrity acclaim, accepts dinner with the Doge, a brilliantly spiky performance from Tim McInnerney.

Fiona Shaw is superb, almost too pitch perfect for the part. As ever she is immersive in each moment, pulling the audience into understanding her unremitting drive and psychological make up. Occasionally though this approach detracts from a clear understanding of the power politics involved and slightly devalues the sense that Galactica is engaged in her own pragmatic decision making process. This is portrait of the artist as wounded animal, all instinct and impulse. I suspect the text affords moments of rational compromise that would complicate her relationship with the state further still. Nevertheless this is about the most complete performance I've seen on stage all year.

For the longest time Barker was seen as the great outsider of the British theatre. His plays shunned by the big producing houses. His intellectual energy deemed too dense for a good night out. His wit seen as exclusive rather than embracing. In a brilliant double irony that won't be lost on either him or Nick Hytner - it's fitting that this play about the dangers of artistic acceptance should now find a home in a lavish production at the largest subsidised theatre in the country.

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