Review: Scenes from an Execution

By John Nathan, October 11, 2012

Lyttleton, National Theatre, London SE1

Fiona Shaw is magnificant as a 16th century artist

Fiona Shaw is magnificant as a 16th century artist

You might say that the National Theatre has done for Howard Barker what, in Barker's play, the Doge of Venice does for the 16th-century female artist, Galactia.

For just as Galactia's paintings have never before been seen on the epic scale demanded by the Doge's commission to paint a vast canvas of the Battle of Lepanto, so Barker's plays are usually consigned in this country to much smaller venues, often uncompromisingly staged by the author's own theatre company The Wrestling School.

This should have been the main story of the evening. That and the fact that Tom Cairn's superb production features a fiercely intelligent performance by Fiona Shaw as the 16th century genius painter, and as the Doge Tim McInnerny almost steals the show. But it didn't quite work out that way.

As the painter who refuses to deliver a work that glorifies state violence,a magnificent Shaw is a walking portrait of convention-defying talent and egotism. McInnerny is brilliant as the culturally sophisticated Doge who is hilariously exasperated by the genius he admires and loves but is unable to control. “I hate you all”, he says of artists. “I wish I'd never seen a painting.”

Barker's writing is littered with humane, at times almost Shakespearean insight. There is the prisoner who knows he will never be released because he has been imprisoned for nothing; and there is the artist who, incarcerated in darkness, now finds daylight crude.

But most of the talk after the play's first night was about a catastrophic technical hitch during a scene change that left Galactia tantalisingly suspended between imprisonment and freedom. A stage manager had to come onto the set to apologise. Shaw shot her audience a rueful smile. It'll go into the annals of all-time cock-ups. But the production deserves to stay in the memory for the best possible reasons. (Tickets: 020 7452 3000)

Last updated: 12:29pm, October 11 2012