Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Theatre review: Scenes from an Execution

For the second week in a row, I arrive at the National Theatre to see a show whose reputation precedes it, and not necessarily in a good way: During its preview period, Scenes from an Execution become notorious for the amount of people cutting their losses at the interval, and inspired newspaper articles about the rights and wrongs of leaving a show early. Writer Howard Barker is known for saying he doesn't think theatre should be an enjoyable experience, so I guess you could call it a success that so many people decided grabbing another drink/watching the Bake-Off/going home for a wank was a better use of their time than staying for Act II. But Barker's attitude about art having to provide something other than what its audience is necessarily looking for is also thematically at the heart of this play, the first of his ever to be staged by the National (their failure to do so until now has also, apparently, been a regular bone of contention with him.)

We're in the 16th century and Venice has just had a major naval victory over the Turks. A 100-foot painting of the battle has been ordered to celebrate the victory, and the Doge Urgentino (Tim McInnerny) has pushed for the controversial artist Battlestar Galactia (Fiona Shaw) to get the commission. Urgentino thinks he'll get a painting with a bit of an edge, but what actually transpires is not just a much more gory and brutal look at war than he was expecting, but also one which refuses to toe the city's official line of this being a necessary and holy conflict.

With the strength of feeling against Tom Cairns' production, Richard and I went into it mainly wondering if we would make it to the end (and I figured if I did get bored, at least I could entertain myself with the fact that one of the characters was called Lasagna, and hope Lucas Hare gave him a multi-layered performance.) As it happens although there are dull moments in the show and it won't be threatening my list of favourites, I once again struggled to see what had caused quite that strength of feeling against the production. Shaw is a natural choice to play the spirited but quite self-destructive Battlestar Galactia, and she brings both power and vulnerability to the role; funnily enough, I got echoes of The Judas Kiss in the artist's stubbornness in doing the painting her way even if it results in her being sent to prison, only to crumble when faced by the reality of incarceration.

Richard mainly came along because he wanted to see Shaw on stage, and he said she lived up to his expectations, although he hadn't been planning on seeing quite so much of her - Battlestar Galactia's baggy smock means one or other of her boobs keeps Ruthie Henshalling out of it. Actually if you are one of the people who aren't enjoying the play, and are of a gambling disposition, perhaps you could make a mental game of guessing which one's going to pop out next. Despite his being one of the philistine villains of the piece, there's more than a little truth in the Cardinal's observation that Battlestar Galactia's apparently disheveled appearance and overt sexuality are as carefully designed as one of her paintings.

McInnerny is also interesting as the art-loving Doge, a largely comic performance as he's unable to find the right balance between leaving the artist alone and interfering, but sometimes displaying a sudden menacing side as we're reminded of the political power he wields, and the ruthlessness he will have demonstrated to achieve it. His brother the admiral plays a central role in the painting, and it's funny to see Propeller regular Robert Hands playing a man weirdly fixated with his own hands, of all the things an actor with that name could end up playing. The set is a bulky affair of massive, rotating blank canvases (that's apparently also been causing its own share of grief with technical problems, though not tonight) so it's no huge surprise to see Hildegard Bechtler is behind the design, which also uses a transparent curtain to give some idea of the eventual painting's scale (we never see the end result itself, though parts of it and other paintings are sometimes represented by actors in tableau.)

I can't say there aren't dull patches to Scenes from an Execution but it's certainly not the disaster I was expecting, and makes its points without ramming them home as much as the writer's outside comments might make one expect. I would say that by the interval I felt like I knew what the play had to say, so perhaps in that sense it might not be a show that people are desperate to return to after the interval; but at least the second act moves the story on, with Battlestar Galactia imprisoned and her lover, the competent but uninspired Carpeta (Jamie Ballard) being given the job of replacing her epic with a more patriotic version. My biggest irritation with the production in fact would probably be with Phoebe Nicholls' one-note drawling performance as the art critic Rivera, rather than anything about the show overall, which isn't perhaps the most rewarding experience, but didn't, for me, rate as the actively unpleasant one Barker seemed to threaten.

Scenes from an Execution by Howard Barker is booking in repertory until the 9th of December at the National Theatre's Lyttelton.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

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