It says something about the state of our reality when the themes reflected in a 1980s play still cause us to pause and reflect on current day conundrums. Scenes from an Execution is just that, a reflection of different perspectives of realities imagined through art (or the subjective and diverse idea of what art and its impact should be).
This play, penned by English playwright and theorist Howard Barker, sees the strong-willed, opinionated, promiscuous and just a little too vain Venetian artist, Galactia (dynamically portrayed by Jennifer Steyn), commissioned by the city’s committee to paint the 15th century Battle of Lepanto, to showcase how great and noble the victory was. This sentiment is not shared by Galactia, who rather wants to capture the veracity of it all on canvass.
You may therefore be justified in thinking that this is merely a play providing a straightforward commentary on the struggle between artists and state with regard to free artistic expression, but you would be missing out on many opulent and ominous themes, if you limit your mind just to that.
In a 2008 interview, Barker explained that “Theatre allows a profusion of resources, it is excessive, over-abundant, it suits the chaotic nature of my imagination. I like to inundate an audience with experiences which attack all the senses or most of them at any rate.” And a version of that experience is what is offered to the audience in Scenes from an Execution, as the chaos of the battle paint starts dripping off the canvas and seeping into the interactions of the characters, bringing art as imagination into reality.
When Galactia decides to paint the reality of the battle from a different perspective of the truth – with broken spirits and flesh sliced with no “pretext for elegance” – she is met with great criticism from everyone, ironically everyone except the critics. In confronting her political sponsors as her real critics, the power and value of art as imitation of reality is revealed as it entices emotive reaction from those who stand witness to it. Galactia herself declares "I am painting the Battle... in such a way that anyone who looks at it will feel he is there, and wince in case an arrow should fly out of the canvas and catch him in the eye". A vision which her patron the Doge of Venice (masterfully played by Graham Hopkins) at first praises as "Excellent! Marvelous!", yet later turns against her for that same passionate artistic expression initially so admired.
The play reveals the emotional reactions to the Battle (arguably symbolic of all art) to range from positive, heartfelt compassion to the revelation of suppressed menace, depending on the social context of the eyes which look upon it. In fact, Galactia’s married lover and fellow artist Carpeta (young talent Khathushelo Ramabulana) is brought to tears by it. Within the midst of this all, there is undeniably a personal obsession at play alongside the subtext of the commissioned painting. It is after all telling that Galactia’s daughters are named Supporta and Dementia.
Scenes from an Execution is definitely not a comedy. Though, as the artist's vision unfolds and both pride and prejudice is revealed through the sly manoeuvres of the Venetians who all feel it their duty to make every opportunity (no matter how unfortunate) work in their favour, Barker’s text reveals a sarcastic, dark comedy undertone that definitely incites audience reaction.
Though a lengthy play (originally aired as a BBC Radio Drama in 1984), the poetic nature and rhythm of the prose makes it accessible and at times you even forget that your derrière is slightly numbing. Every single performer on the stage clearly gives it their all in trying to do justice to their characters, and every character is essential, giving voice to a different perspective of reality.
What is especially fascinating and even telling of such differing perspectives, is the feminist stand-off between Galactia and her daughter Supporta. While Galactia is unashamedly a woman carving out her equal rights position amongst her male peers in the most unapologetic manner, choosing to have her paintings have a strong masculine character as an indictment rather than an ode, her daughter reminds of a more mainstream feminist who doesn’t have insight into her mother’s strong willed position and would like her to compromise on her own perspective for the greater good of the women of her craft. Initially, when you first hear the daughter’s plea you wonder if Galactia should not tone down her artistic expression to allow her praise and success to carve the path for female artists in Venetia to more work and opportunities. But then you witness her captured, crazed monologue on truth and how the truth-speakers get forgotten in the dark. Her vanity aside, her message of truth along with her demand of quality strikes a modern day chord, especially in the current day of alternative facts and political agendas. Is it truly naïve, as Galactia is presented, to want to give voice to a truth regardless of consequence, or is it brave?
In its bold, perhaps deceptively lush, telling of Galactia's revolt against authority, as much as the expression of the Battle of Lepanto, Scene from an Execution is indeed a thought provoking theatre night out, with great performances by Jennifer Steyn, Lauren Blackwell (Supporta) and Cleo Raatus (Prodo). Mention must be made of Phoebe Ritchie’s beautifully haunting voice as Dementia too. The stand-out performance though has to be Graham Hopkins as Urgentino, the Doge of Venice. The manner in which he gives complexity to such a very superficial character, and makes him almost charming in a kind of off way, is the type of performance that makes this play worth the ticket price and more. Through his performance and onstage energy he also elevates those of Admiral Suffici (played by Nicky Rebelo with the appropriate degree of misplaced grandeur) and the Critic Rivera (eloquently portrayed by Elizabeth Akudugu). Director Clare Stopford clearly allows her cast to play to their strengths in giving their characters artistic life.
Luke Ellenbogen’s lighting design is masterful, creating a painting of the play in itself through clever silhouettes and striking shading. The lighting definitely brings added depth of perspective. If one has to be critical, the costume design here and there gives subtle hints that this is not truly 16th century Venice, though the Doge of Venice’s attire is fantastic. The set in its simplicity is eye-catching and allows the performers the space to play around and take the audience on an imaginative exploration of both the darker and more opulent Venice. It would however all be more believable if Galactia’s sketch books didn’t give away that there were no real sketches therein and the painters’ hands were not so very clean, making their moments of creativity more obviously make-believe than it perhaps should be. These are really nit-picking comments on things that don’t necessarily detract from the play and experience. But when a play and performances are of a high quality it is those tiny details that jump out at one easier than would be the case in a production that is not so creatively stimulating.
Challenge yourself, go explore the role of the artist in the context of censorship, propaganda and self-expression in the ever changing, fluid truth of history and reality. Get yourself to the Baxter Theatre by 22 April 2017. Tickets for this staging of Barker’s contemporary classic Scenes from an Execution available at Computicket.