Thursday, 18 October 2012

Scenes From An Execution - review

Written by: Stephen St Clement

National Theatre (Lyttleton), London

Howard Barker, one of our country’s most inventive and prolific playwrights, has never quite fit in. His desire to take “our audiences more seriously, and stop telling them stories they can understand” is reflected in his writing, where time, place, and people themselves are simultaneously both specific and inexplicable by conventional logic or definition. The alienating effect of his consistently anachronistic imagery and brutal language has always prevented Barker from gaining widespread national renown…until now.

Originally written as a radio play in 1984, Scenes follows the fictional Venetian artist Galactia (Fiona Shaw) and her efforts to paint a gigantic mural depicting the Battle of Lepanto, her desire to express her feelings about war and death greatly at odds with the wishes of her commissioner, the Doge of Venice (Tim McInnerny). From the moment the curtain rose on Galactia’s lover Carpeta (Jamie Ballard), lying naked on a prop boulder being sketched by Galactia, herself barely covered by a loose-fitting cloth shirt, the audience was awash with titters and the atmosphere somewhat reminiscent of a school assembly on sexual education. Audience laughter of this kind often masks powerful emotions like revulsion, horror and arousal, and is the very thing that Barker has always sought to dispel. It continued throughout the play, as war veteran Prodo paraded his injuries (including a crossbow bolt lodged in his brain and intestines perpetually spilling from his stomach) and an Albanian man rubbed his crotch whilst grinning at a distressed young woman, with Shaw’s breasts all the while on display.

Though the whole cast performed with great energy and purpose, particularly Ballard’s ambitious yet spineless Carpeta to McInnerney’s menacing yet sensitive Urgentino, all were guilty on several occasions of playing for laughs rather than impact, the audience rarely forced to question their sympathies for these ultimately weak and selfish people. Shaw’s aggressive and sanguine Galactia can perhaps be excused of this, beset as she is on all sides by criticism and violence with humour often her only viable form of defence. But the principle blame for the lack of effective brutality in the performance must be laid at the feet of director Tom Cairns, who one feels has taken the safe route. In stark contrast to a poignant scene in which Galactia refuses to trivialise her work by engaging in an intellectual debate with William Chubb’s vindictive Cardinal Ostensibile, Cairns has erred on the side of caution, thus allowing the audience to keep a comfortable distance between themselves and the searching questions asked of them as individuals by this play.

Several design flaws further compounded the production’s lack of bite. Hildegard Bechtler’s impressive set of vast moving walls was robbed of its potential for both scale and intimacy by Peter Mumford’s lighting design, which left a lot to be desired in terms of subtlety – Galactia herself was heard to complain about there being too much light. Conversely, the lack of significantly potent depiction of the mural itself meant that the audience had little opportunity to connect with the painting’s subject matter, relying solely on descriptions and reactions from those on stage. This problem stems from the play itself – any artist’s interpretation of the piece could not possibly do justice to the scope and potency of Barker’s words.  One particularly striking image, however, did appear at the end of act one, depicting a tableau of three figures: a sailor, gazing in uncomprehending horror; Prodo holding his eyes and ears closed to shut out the turmoil around him; and the imperious Admiral Suffici (Robert Hands), standing monstrously calm and resolute. This image drew a stunned silence from the snickering spectators, and made one wish for more of the same.

Another problem inherent in the play comes in the form of The Sketchbook, a voiced collection of stage directions and descriptions, in this production taking the form of a suited and bespectacled narrator (Gerrard McArthur), telling parts of the story from a floating box of white light. In a production full of relatively safe choices, this one is hard to fathom. Perhaps his passing resemblance to Barker himself shows awareness by the director of the fact that in bringing Barker’s work to the masses, something has been lost in translation. Certainly, there is a comparison to be drawn between Galactia’s painting and the play itself – that an artist ultimately holds no power over how their work is interpreted by those who see it.

Though confidently performed and with several intriguing images left in the mind, there seemed to be a lack of intensity and purpose so very present within the text. Barker once said: “I submit all my plays to the National Theatre for rejection. To assure myself I am seeing clearly.” Now, after writing over one hundred dramatic works during a career spanning almost half a century, his genius is finally being recognised by that same popular institution which has for so long served as a bench mark for everything he has sought to avoid in theatre. What price glory?

This production runs until 9 December 2012. 

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

started reading this, sounded like an essay, looks long, stopped reading... get back on shape "Peen" and edit your bloggers. Word counts can be wonderful things you know...