Scenes from an Execution

Howard Barker

Lyttelton Theatre (National)

From 27 September 2012 to 09 December 2012

Review by Philip Fisher

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It is never easy to get inside the head of an artist and, having done so, doubly difficult to convey the results on stage or page in any meaningful way. Scenes from an Execution manages to succeed where many others have failed in what becomes a highly enjoyable tour de force.

Howard Barker can be inaccessible, meaning that much of the work that he has created with his own company, The Wrestling School remains almost unknown.

This play, first performed on radio in 1984 and then at the Almeida six years later with Glenda Jackson in the leading role on both occasions, is something of a star vehicle. As a result, it has considerably greater commercial appeal than some of the playwright's other works, which should be good news for the National Theatre. It is also witty and insightful on numerous levels.

Director, Tom Cairns has been lucky enough to persuade Fiona Shaw to take on the role of Galactia, an artistic genius and feminist icon in 17th Century Venice, reputedly based on Artemisia Gentileschi.

To describe her as a firebrand is understating the case. Galactia struts around the stage like some bombastic sportsman, fearlessly willing to take on any man in combat, as well as in bed.

The frustrated and frustrating Doge, played by Tim McInnerny, has persuaded the powers that be to commission the largely untried and irritatingly unbiddable artist to paint a mural-sized depiction of the Battle of Lepanto, a veritable bloodbath that saw Turks and Christians alike slaughtered in vast numbers in 1571.

Initially, the ruler is looking for a celebratory piece that will boost his own status and ego, as well as featuring Robert Hands as his Admiral brother Cesare, in triumphant glory.

Artists are rarely willing to allow control freaks to have their way and good ones will even more violently defend their visions. So it is with Galactia, whose determinedly neorealist intent is to depict all of the horrors of battle including every ounce of blood and gore.

The Doge may come off second best but does enjoy admirable support from regular Barker collaborator William Chubb, who provides a perfect cameo as the straight-faced but extremely funny Cardinal Ostensibile.

Strangely, this portrait of the artist allows for a considerable degree of gallows humour as first we meet the artist's artistic lover, model and competitor Carpeta played by Jamie Ballard, whose metaphorically voluble buttocks make a big impression. However, they cannot compete with a man with the crossbow arrow through his head nor or his fellow with a cleft hand and graphically open bowel.

They, along with several other beautifully memorable images, give designer Hildegard Bechtler a chance to shine with a series of tableaux, only marginally tarnished by a machinery breakdown that briefly delayed the denouement on opening night.

Howard Barker surefootedly builds a vivid impression of an eccentric but totally believable human being, given joie de vivre by Miss Shaw on top form.

At the same time, he makes some important statements about the nature of art and artists, which, given his subsequent history, appear to be personal and have come very much from the heart.

It would be great to think that this splendid revival, which is highly commended, could lead to a much higher profile for Howard Barker who, partly from choice, has almost completely disappeared from the mainstream.