Not-a-review: Scenes from an Execution, National Theatre

“Art is opinion, and opinion is the source of all authority”

Not too much to say about Scenes from an Execution as we left at the interval and so any opinion has to take that into account, along with the fact this was actually the first full preview (the previous night’s performance being re-cast as a full dress). Howard Barker’s play, originally written for radio, is centred on Galactia, a sixteenth century Venetian artist who is commissioned to create a giant celebration of the triumphant Battle of Lepanto, but whose strong will and artistic impulses set her firmly at odds with the authorities.

Fiona Shaw returns to the National Theatre to take on this part, directed by Tom Cairns, so it is fair to say that expectations were a little high, but I just wasn’t prepared for the utter lack of engagement that came from the first half. It opens entertainingly enough: a naked man spread-eagled on a rock, an artist sketching him with a smock barely covering her up, a narrator figure flying around (literally) in a big white box (kudos to Hildegard Bechtler’s design). But after the initial set-up, I found little of interest in the portrayal of this fictional painter’s trials and tribulations.

The central point about the conflicting responsibilities of an artist between fulfilling their patron’s desire and exercising their own creative judgement is potentially an interesting one, but little of it grabbed me here. Shaw’s Galactia rarely felt like a real person (aside from being fictional), instead an almost caricaturish bohemian figure – for example, the choice to have her frequently bare-breasted feels too studied a move to really convince – with her daughters’ dilemmas about the trickle-down effect on their own careers not really coming across. And the authority figures – Tim McInnerny’s Doge and, in a much-welcomed return to the stage, Phoebe Nicholl’s Rivera look great in their swishing robes but failed to compel me.

Much of this was me – it had been a long week full of long plays, and I just wasn’t anywhere near the right frame of mind for watching this, in the way that three friends who we saw there very much were, and enjoyed it. But at the same time, my companion was equally turned off and instigated our early departure, so a mixed bag all around, even Bechtler’s early promise is undone by a later staging trick that currently limits the view of a good proportion of the front rows. It will be interesting to see what people make of it – I’m pretty sure I know how the critics will fall, and especially a certain European-theatre-loving subset, but I’m more interested to see what RevStan and Poly made of it (since they stayed til the end!) 

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval) according to the cast-sheet
Programme cost: £3
Booking until 9th December

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