Scenes from an Execution

Howard Barker
Sweet Pea Productions
Hackney Empire Studio
(2007)

Studio productions by unknown companies of major plays disappoint more often than they delight. It is therefore doubly pleasurable when something like Sweet Pea's highly professional Scenes from an Execution comes along.

Any Barker play offers a challenge to directors since the original production will have been painstakingly created by the writer's own company The Wrestling School.

Sweet Pea rise to the occasion. Everything about this two hour drama is finely judged by director, William Oldroyd, from the casting and acting to a simple white box set, beautifully lit by Fiona Simpson, and costumes that take us back to Venice in the Sixteenth Century.

There the Doge, played by Robert Goodale as Michael Winner, has commissioned Galactia, the greatest painter of her generation but also one of its freest souls, to paint an epic memorial to the glorious Venetian victory at the battle of Lepanto.

The story of a city and its teeming life is told through the many pictures and sketches that Galactia creates. These are presented both to our eyes and ears, in the latter case through an unseen narrator, John Standing, using his best Radio 3 voice.

Like many of the characters on stage, he uses a heightened, poetic language that is one of the many pleasures of the evening.

The main role cannot be easy. Wrestling School regular Melanie Jessop is on stage throughout, superbly portraying a combative woman of outstanding bravery and vision as well as modern sensibilities.

Not only does Barker take us into the mind of an artistic genius in this multi-layered play but he shows us the period and pressures that she endured. Further, he considers the mutuality of the relationship between art and criticism (recently debated in a Soapbox at the Menier) and makes some oblique comments on the cultural politics of our own time.

Galactia may have been commissioned by a tyrannical state to portray its war heroes in a favourable light but she has other ideas. Her talent is as a realist who visualises the fight at sea as Scenes from an Execution and a very bloody one at that. She packs the 100 foot long canvas with no less than 666 square feet of dead bodies, many modelled on her unfaithful (artistically if not physically) lover Carpeta (Tom Burke).

On a lighter note we also meet a commercially astute invalid Prodo (Oliver Birch), complete with bolt vertically through his head and visible bowel.

As the painting develops, so do the artist's problems. Even her daughter-apprentices (Laura Martin-Simpson and Laura Elphinstone) lose confidence, the Doge rages and eventually, cuts the project for a safer substitute.

However, ability will out and with some political spin, the masterpiece brings in the crowds and, much to the artist's displeasure, glorifies the state.

This is a really fine effort with production qualities and a budget far higher than might have been anticipated. It is also much funnier than its gala night audience realised.

Scenes from an Execution is the kind of play that, like a painting, will reveal more layers each time it is viewed and Sweet Pea are to be thanked for reminding us of Howard Barker at his best.

Philip Fisher