Scenes From An Execution is everything you want from the National’s intimidating Lyttelton theatre; breathtaking design, an epic story and actors who breathe life into every inch of the vast space.
Howard Barker’s drama tells the story of an artist torn between an idealistic view of art as raw truth and the realities of painting under commission for political gain. Following Galactia, revered for her talent and tolerated for her promiscuity and affair with younger lover and fellow painter Carpeta, Barker’s play is as much an intellectual debate on criticism and compromising artistic values as it is a captivating study of a life lived through passion.
With Fiona Shaw at the helm as the formidable artist Galactia, you might expect this to be her show, but Tom Cairns’ production proves itself to be truly the sum of each of its parts.
While Shaw undoubtedly dominates – who couldn’t as Galactia, a force of nature who paints as she acts, violently, passionately, clashing against conventions – each character brings something new to the table. Jamie Ballard as Carpeta is both hilarious and engrossing, utterly baffled as to why Galactia has a hold over him, ignoring his undoubted admiration of her as his weakness. Tim McInnerny also shines as Galactia’s commissioner of a vast 100ft battle scene landscape Urgentino, a bore whose passive aggressive vicious edge spills forth with sugar-coated venom as he demands triumph where Galactia sees dismembered bodies and bloodied faces.
Cairns’ production is framed by Hildegard Bechtler’s beautifully structural and surprising set, placing the sometime narrator of the piece – the fittingly named The Sketchbook, who offers us snippets of insights to the work taking place on stage, a sort of history of art lecture in dramatic form – in a moving light box, the stark white glow contrasting with Peter Mumford’s otherwise soft lighting design that wraps the stage in a Vermeer glow, the rich colours adding a sumptuousness to the otherwise often coarse staging.
But to Shaw you must return, commanding the stage at all times as a woman with fire in her belly. With minimal makeup, legs thrown wide apart as she draws and her breasts often bare, she plays the role with an animalistic energy. This energy transfers to her relationship with Carpeta, the pair never embrace, they fight, they don’t kiss, they attack one another, proving her passion and brutality crosses both her work and thoughts. Therein lies why everyone in the play is drawn to Galactia, because, for the most part, she is fearless, as is Shaw.