Tuesday, 9 October 2012
Scenes From An Execution at The Lyttleton
The title isn’t great and I wasn’t that keen to see Scenes from an Execution by the irascible Howard Barker until I saw that Fiona Shaw was in the main role. In reality the play is much better than I envisaged and Fiona Shaw is marvellous.
She plays Galactia, an artist, who has been commissioned by the Doge of Venice to paint a massive canvas celebrating the historic victory by the Venetians over the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Unfortunately for the Doge and his cohorts, her vision of depicting the battle is decidedly different to theirs. She paints a canvas showing the brutality, futility and, ultimately, denunciation of war, whereas they had envisaged a triumphal picture portraying a glorious conquest. As a result, Galactia is thrown in gaol and her young lover, Carpeta, also an artist, although far less talented, betrays his love for her by agreeing to paint another version of the battle more in tune with what his clients require. Fortunately her incarceration is short-lived, as is her liaison with Carpeta and, because he is not a particularly talented artist, the Venetian powers that be don’t want to exhibit his canvas either. What to do now? Their final decision would seem to illustrate Carpeta isn’t averse to compromise, as not only does she agree to dine with the Doge but does so wearing a dress with fastenings!
Up until this point, Fiona Shaw commands the Lyttleton stage with breast and often breasts free to do what they will. Her loose fitting, grubby, open, short shirt leaves nothing to the imagination and she sketches various scenes for her painting with legs akimbo. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind right from the beginning of the play that this female is one unconventional, earthy woman. More of a man than her lover Carpeta will ever be. I can see why this “ballsy” actress was cast in the role; it would flaw a lesser one.
Meanwhile Tim McInnery makes the most wonderful Doge moving effortlessly from smarmy menace to all encompassing rage and Jamie Ballard is more than satisfactory as the weak but ambitious Carpeta.
Hildegard Bechtler’s multi-level set works extremely well . I say works, although on Press Night, it apparently didn’t work at all for about ten minutes. No such excitement on the night I went and, from what I could see, no walkouts. It amazes me why anyone would actually do that. This may not be the greatest production ever seen at The Lyttleton but, unless one has an aversion to breasts and the rather risible sight of a wounded sailor with a bolt buried in his skull and intestines on display under his coat, it is certainly worth sitting through until the end. Rather pretentious it maybe – why Gerrard McArthur’s narrator is called The Sketchbook is anyone’s guess – but I like the ingeniousness of installing him in a white box which descends from high up in the ceiling. The Director, Tom Cairns, keeps the whole play moving along at a brisk pace and it asks the theatre goer some interesting questions about the power of art and the responsibility of the artist to portray the truth.