Stage Review: Scenes from an Execution (National Theatre, London)

Rating: ****

Galactia (Fiona Shaw) is a brilliant but promiscuous and ‘immoral’ artist. But none the less she’s been given a commission to create a grand public work depicting the Battle of Lepanto, a great naval victory for the republic of Venice. However, instead of the epic piece of propaganda that Doge Ostensibile (William Chubb) has in mind, she sets out to paint a harrowing and violent ‘truth’ setting her at odds with both church and state. She then battles not only against dishonesty, but for her freedom.

Howard Baker’s play is a viper-tongued swipe of when art mixes with politics, deftly interloping comedy with pathos and severity. For the most part it works and Tom Cairn’s production brings aboard some wonderful directorial ideas alongside some stunning stage craft and brilliant acting.

The most striking thing about the show is that initially the approach to the play is quite surreal. Hildegard Bechtler’s set is as restless and disconnected as Baker’s characters and script. Seldom staying still for too long walls turn, painted frescos come alive in slow motion, and rooms fly amongst a sparse lagoon of monolith cuboids lit with only shadows and a few bold colours. Particularly dream-like is The Sketchbook (Gerrard McArthur), an art historian hovering in a modern, bright, and clinical cube commenting on the composing of Galactia’s masterwork in the historic, dirty, and etiquette-less ramble of her workshop below. This becomes just one of the many visually striking moments Cairn offers throughout.

The result is heady and hypnotic and the action is played in some sort of beautiful nightmare, making Baker’s play even bolder that the mere text itself and hitting home not just the rabid excitement of Galactia’s manifesto but the ensuing danger of the inevitable consequences.

But in the second act the imposingness of the direction and the quirk of other worldliness evaporate all too quickly. From being a play with strong themes pointed with grand visions it falls into something more garden variety. Gone is The Sketchbook’s contribution completely, and the stage becomes static as Baker’s battle of political ideals versus artistic expression becomes drawn out into sassy debate rather than played out through grand theatre. The narrative itself becomes more obvious and straight forward distancing itself from the exciting fluidity and energy that embodied Act I. It still has power, but it suddenly lacks punch.

But what holds it together is a bewitching performance by Shaw. She manages to capture the essence of spiteful abandon and egotistical hedonism that fuels her character’s art. She is superb at portraying Galactia’s complete lack of grace, and angry zeal, swaggering about with her tits hanging out of loose rags, taunting, bullying, and cruelly toying with those she loves and comes in contact with. She deliver’s Baker’s rapier cynicism with an astonishing dexterity and effortless charm that shows her reputation still has clout despite her veteran status.

In a play of two unequal halves, Shaw is the only thing that really binds it all together, and you’re left to wonder whether without her the comparatively weak second half would cause the production slide into mediocrity. None the less, this particular production is excellent, even if just to see Shaw in one of her finest moments or be wowed by Cairn’s beautifully unsettling vision of Baker’s biting play.

Scenes from an Execution plays at the National Theatre, London, SE1 9PX until 9 December 2012. Tickets are £12-£32. To book visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.

Image: Fiona Shaw as Galactia (left) and Robert Hands as Suffici (right). Photograph: Mark Douet. Courtesy of the National Theatre.

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