Howard Barker and I haven’t had the best of starts. When, a couple of years ago, I was introduced to his work in a season of plays presented at the Riverside studios, I found the experience joyless and cerebral. Interesting definitely, but suffocating at the same time. Inevitably I was approaching the National Theatre production of Scenes from an Execution, directed by Tom Cairns, with a certain amount of caution.
The beginning of the play both confirmed and disproved some of these notions: a man – or rather a talking head – sitting on a white box floats towards the audience. A woman – powerful, sexy, unselfconscious, full of acerbic humour – paints a naked man (her lover). They have a fight. She has been commissioned an epic painting to commemorate the battle of Lepanto. She is too full of life not to seek the truth in her art, and too short sighted to see anything else.
I watched the first part of the play with mixed feelings: for all the play’s talk of the art’s visceral truth and despite full blooded performances, the approach is too cerebral for the production to make that leap. Some scenes misfire: a soldier with an arrow stuck in his head and his guts spilling from his torso is too comic a creation to make truth of the horror of the battle (the scene is not helped by make-up that, from the third row at least, looks ropey. Maybe that problem will be sorted before press night).
The second part becomes something far more interesting: with the painting finished, a war begins for its soul. The lover is ready to betray in order to taste success and glory, but when faced with the depth of his betrayal (which is betrayal of the art, never of love) he weeps. The artist mistakes the tears for appreciation and feeds on them like a vulture. The patron of the arts is torn between what the painting is (truth) and what it means (defying authority, the ultimate of sins). It’s these questions that make the play what it is and set the imagination on fire.
Fiona Shaw is the force of nature the role demands. I marvel at how she can be warm, scary, witty and vulnerable all at the same time. Her Galactia is both magnanimous and pity, often in the same breath, and holding into that contradiction makes the character far more real. Tim McInnerny has played a range of unpleasant characters recently and this is used to good effect: his character starts as something of a standard villain but develops into a genuinely tortured soul. His character has the insight Galactia lacks: he is tortured by the knowledge of things to come. All performances, even to the smallest parts, are of a very high standard, there is no weak link.
The set is dominated by high walls that hide, separate, isolate. The final scene has echoes of the first scene in Timon of Athens, another production currently playing at the National. I would like to think that, in some other world, Timon starts where Scenes from an Execution ends.
One final note: the running time is 2hrs 35 mins, 10 minutes shorter than the time printed in the programme. It’s always a good sign if the final product is tighter than initially predicted.