Friday 5 October 2012

Scenes From an Execution – National Theatre

[seen on Monday in the pen-penultimate preview. Paid £20 for an excellent seat and had a brilliant night out. God bless the NT]

Howard Barker used to proudly comment in interviews (in every interview?) that he made a point of sending every play he wrote to the National Theatre and that they hadn't produced a single one.

Of course, hundreds of other playwrights could say the same thing. It takes a shatterproof sense of self-belief to come out with it like it's an injustice. Being a playwright whose career now spans six decades (his first play Skipper(?) Dates from 1969), he might have just have got away with it, though. In the 70s and 80s he seemed to do okay, with productions by the likes of the RSC, the Royal Court and the Bush, not to mention the odd television play and radio commission, but in the late 80s where he abandoned writing social satires and plays with easily discerned points, and founded his company The Wrestling School to bypass the fact that theatre managements didn't seem to be much going for his new stuff, this stand off started to look like an impasse.

There is a rich, black irony then, that the play with which the National have broken this unofficial embargo is Scenes From an Execution. At once Barker's most successful play – perhaps also his most readily understood and point-making piece – and a play about a wilful artist who refuses to compromise their ideals regarding difficulty in the face of opprobrium, unpopularity and censure.

But beyond this irony, how brilliant that the National have decided to stage Scenes From an Execution. And not to do so with any apparent embarrassment. And to put a proper box office draw like Fiona Shaw in the starring role (Beckett, Brecht and now Barker – Fiona Shaw must be the NT's favourite way to trade off against the perceived difficulty of a play).

I have no idea how the decision to do the play was reached (though I'd love to find out), but it reads like some of the sharpest building dramaturgy in the UK today. In simple terms, Scenes From an Execution, staged at the National Theatre, now, feels so timely that it almost seems impossible that the play is already 28 years old. It speaks to our post-Olympic arts world (and to the late/post-Afghanistan/Iraq world), perhaps more eloquently and urgently than even it might have spoken in 1984, and differently than it did to the post-New Labour, victory-afterglow Britain of '99.

Let me admit now, that I went in already a massive fan of this play and my only real concern was that this production just didn't fuck it up. I don't think I'd ever seen anything that Tom Cairns had directed before, and I'd somehow avoided Fiona Shaw (perhaps a bit deliberately after going off her a lot following the Deborah Warner Medea, which everyone else seemed to think was ok. (my recollection is: it wasn't)). So I was a tiny bit apprehensive. In the event, this production not only doesn't fuck it up, it is an exciting, intelligent take on the play. (And it makes me wish I'd seen more of Cairns's previous work.)

Lending the Lyttleton's stage a strange vastness, Hildegard Bechtler's set looks – I'm not sure there's another way of saying this – operatic. The basic thing is three huge walls, occluded by hanging, structural-looking gauze panels. To one side is a high thick wall on an off-centre revolve. There's at once a base functionality and cubist abstraction about it. What's great, though, is that it's a set that isn't afraid to be a bit ugly. Deliberately so. Almost coarsely asserting the necessity of its brutal strength and practicality.

Cairns's direction follows suit. At several keys moments one is almost surprised by the way that he has placed two characters having a conversation at such a distance apart. You are forced to watch as if a tennis match. There is no drive for the sleek, pretty, dramatically inert stage pictures one might associate with Michael Grandage; nor are there the polite, painterly, safe compositions of Howard Davies. Instead, this is stagecraft that feels, for all its sometime stateliness, somehow raw. It's a mode of staging that suits Barker's script well as it creates a room that allows for both the flights of writerly rhetoric and the actually-very-funny exchanges. We get both enough pace to make the thing gallop along, but enough space to be able to feel the depth and weight of the concepts under discussion.

Scenes... is a big play. Its subject is nominally the commissioning of a painting by the Republic of Venice to celebrate its victory against the Turks in the battle of Lepanto (fascinating to rediscover a pre-9/11 play depicting “Christian vs Islam” conflict). The Doge of Venice (Tim McInnerny) has opted for a woman painter called Galactia (Fiona Shaw); a gamble since she has a messy personal life – an ongoing affair with fellow-painter Carpeta (Jamie Ballard) – and problematically definite ideas about art, which do not tally with the sort of painting that the Doge wants. Barker uses this frame to explore a whole wealth of philosophical and theoretical arguments about art, the value of art, and most insistently, the way that art functions in relation to its sponsors. Two of the best minor characters are Ostensible, a cardinal (William Chubb) and Rivera, a critic (Phoebe Nicholls).

For this production Cairns has also reinstated the “character” of Galactia's speaking sketchbook. The play was originally a radio drama, which makes a lot of sense of the fact that this is a play about a painting that we never see (think of those Stoppard radio plays which also make much of the fact that one is painting impossible images on the canvas of the imagination, or Duncan Macmillan's I Wish To Apologise For My Part in the Apocalypse in which the moon is a speaking character). Barker had originally, unfussily written in a device that allowed him to describe what was in various rooms, from the perspective of the book in which they were being drawn.

Here, the sketchbook is played by long-time Wrestling School associate and close Barker confederate Gerrard McArthur, who arrives in a rather marvellous floating bright white room which seems to magically float down from the back of the stage. The casting of McArthur is inspired. It honours the “canonicity” that has built up around Barker's work – indeed McArthur exudes a certain atmosphere of being Barker's minister in the real world, and bears a passing resemblance to the white-haired, hawk-faced poet; but also because McArthur does Barkertext in the manner of which Barker would most approve: a sardonic luxuriance with the words. It's a style that in lesser hands might feel a bit old-fashioned or Olivier-aping, but here – within the postmodern quote marks provided by sitting in a brightly lit floating space; halfway between gallery and page – it strikes the right balance between lyricism and urgency.

Indeed, for all the slight and interesting differences between the acting traditions from which the various cast members hail, this is a cohesive ensemble effort. Tim McInnerny (who doubtless prays for the day that his parts in Blackadder are no longer mentioned) turns in the best stage performance I've ever seen him give. This version of the Doge of Venice, like many of Barker's male authority figures from this period, is a beautiful concoction of wry, very British humour, chilling realpolitik and paradoxically philosophical thinking. McInnerney's performance adds boiling rage and sexual passion to the mix where Ian Pepperell's '99 take on the character was far more ascetic and ironic.

What Fiona Shaw brings to the part of Galactia is chiefly an understated warmth, humanity and credibility – three descriptions one seldom found oneself reaching for in Barker's own (frequently excellent) productions of his plays. And, again, it's different to the vision of the character created by Kathryn Hunter in '99 (lovely description of it here by Ian Shuttleworth), to the extent that it made me rethink a lot of what I thought I knew about the play and indeed about Barker's writing.

It also struck me that in the 13 years since I last saw the play, my own emphases and bias has changed, so that I now paid a lot more attention to the character of the critic, who before had seemed far more peripheral. Because of this attention Rivera's arguments now strike me as being some of the most interesting in the play.

Of course the real argument is between the Doge's uncanny, passionate feel for what makes great art, albeit compromised by his relationship both to the subject of the commission – both figuratively and literally, since it is his brother, Suffici (Robert Hands), who was the commander of the victorious Venetian fleet – and both the artist on one side and his cardinal on the other, who voices the Quentin Letts position of moral censorship, demanding that the state should not fund anything that even slightly undermines the teachings of the church. (It is an unexpected standing rebuke against the current Conservative party that Barker's Doge is a far more enlightened, informed art lover than any modern figure one can imagine.)

But it is the arguments of the critic that are most current and most poisonous. Rivera visits Galactia, both in her studio and when she has been imprisoned because of her painting, and preaches to her the doctrine of good sense, compromise and survival. Arguments that sound shamefully familiar in this age of cuts and questions about the “value” of art. Better, she suggests, that the great artists kow-tow just enough that they may continue to be funded, so that they can continue to create great art. The rejoinder to this position isn't even articulated. It doesn't need to be. It hangs in the air all around us.

The thing that moves …Execution from being merely a good play about art and the state to a great one, is the trajectory of the final few scenes. We can all imagine a play about a play that imprisons an artist because they don't like their art. And thanks to recent well-publicised versions of the story from China and Iran, we know this narrative all too well. Barker's genius is to give his authority figures a more subtle argument. An argument more subtle than any that Quentin Letts has ever figured out. How would it be, he asks, if the state were to pride itself on being able to contain, even support something critical of itself. What if an artist's criticisms of the state were not banned, or reviled, and the artist not imprisoned, but if they were state-funded and the artist were invited to dinner as a celebrity.

We think of the Cool Britannia reception at Tony Blair's Number Ten. We think of Danny Boyle's subversive praise of the NHS in the Olympic Opening Ceremony. We think even of Jenny Sealey's storming Spasticus Autisticus moment from the Paralympic Opening Ceremony. And we ask ourselves questions about the co-option of subversive art by any state. The play doesn't say anything else. This is the final moment. We are left on our own, in the dark with our applause and this question.

It's also interesting to compare this ending with Barker's own production from '99. Then, that point following the question: “Will you have dinner with me?” was a moment of intense agony for Galactia (again Shuttleworth's review records this well). Shaw's Galactia, by contrast, seems pretty happy and blasé about the whole thing. Here it is McArthur's “Sketchbook”, looking almost like Barker himself, who is left staring as Doge, hangers-on, and Galactia, or perhaps his characters, exit the stage of the National Theatre. Funded by the state. Embraced by the mainstream. Understood. Perhaps even praised (or worse, explained) by critics by whom he'd rather not be praised or understood. Being enfolded into the utility that Barker so detests.

It was only a couple of years after Beckett wrote Catastrophe (for Václav Havel), that Barker articulated this situation more bleak than being imprisoned because of your government's fear of what your art can change: being fearlessly celebrated by them because it can't change anything...

No comments: