Thursday, May 15, 2014

Scenes From An Execution

Scenes From An Execution (Tooth and Sinew) runs at the Old Fitzroy Hotel from May 13 – 31 2014. By Howard Barker, directed by Richard Hilliar.

Scenes From An Execution is an incredibly rich, textured piece of theatre. There is so much here to chew on, intellectually and emotionally. At its heart is an enthralling female character, prickly, complex and utterly engaging. The show raises fascinating questions about art and authority which I’ll continue to mull over for some time.

The play is set in Venice in 1571. Controversial artist Galactia (Lucy Miller) is commissioned by the Doge (Mark Lee) to paint a picture commemorating the Battle of Lepanto, one of Venice’s most comprehensive victories over the Ottoman Empire. He expects her to conform to certain artistic boundaries – to celebrate the victory and the glory of Venice. But Galactia has a different story in mind. After an encounter with Prodo (Peter Maple), a war veteran made ridiculous by the arrow shaft stuck in his head, she decides to paint a portrait of the battle as it really was: a bloody, merciless slaughter.

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away and spoil it – particularly as this is a show well worth seeing for yourselves – but the ongoing story of the painting and its contentious ownership raises questions about art and intention that I’m very interested in. This play might be about sixteenth century Venice, but these are questions with ongoing resonance. I’m not sure whether there was a similar moment in art history, but I am familiar with some of the literary theory around these questions. Schleiermachian hermeneutics, one of the early forms of literary criticism, placed the author at the centre of the work. In this model, the reader became a sort of detective, puzzling over the text in an effort to reach the author’s true intentions. But in the twentieth century, the New Criticism emerged, which centred the text, rather than the author. In 1968, Roland Barthes famously declared that the author was dead. Michel Foucault made a similar claim when he called the author a function.

While this is congruent with literary development at the time, it is also not coincidental that this is a period when marginalised writers’ voices started to be heard: voices from writers disenfranchised by their race, class, orientation and/or gender. The dead author trope became another way of marginalising them.  We see something similar in Scenes From An Execution, particularly in the second act. Galactia is so certain her work belongs to her, but a new mode of criticism is emerging, represented here by the critic Rivera (Katherine Shearer).

Let’s talk a bit about Galactia, this fascinating female artist, and her relationship with her work. Her character arc in this play is remarkable, centring as it does around art and her pursuit of truth rather than her relationships, as so many female arcs do. (I have absolutely zero problems with female arcs centring on relationships, but this should not be the only option open to women.) Indeed, the most important relationship she has in this play is not with her lover Carpeta (Jeremy Waters), but with her art – and, by extension, with truth. Galactia believes she is doing a brave and noble thing with her art: an important thing, an incontrovertible thing, an intrinsically political thing. But she does not take into account the fact that ownership of her work might be challenged. I found the way this idea of truth and art is treated and mobilised in Scenes From An Execution so, so interesting. I want to say a lot more about it, but a) a lot of it involves Foucault and that’s a bit boring, and b) I don’t want to spoil the show.

This is a really good production of a very difficult script. It is very intense the whole way through and perhaps could have benefited from a little more light and shade, but when I think about where that stillness could go, I’m at a loss. Like Galactia, this play is relentless – and that is part of its appeal. Director Richard Hilliar has put together a great ensemble – Lucy Miller as Galactia and Jeremy Waters as Carpeta are particular standouts. There is so much going on in this piece, and it would have been easy for it to get bogged down in its own verbiage. But happily, this does not happen. I found Scenes From An Execution utterly fascinating. Make time to go and see it.

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography

I reviewed Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography at Griffin Theatre. Check out what I thought here. (Spoilers: I thought it was boss.)

Monday, May 5, 2014

Thom Pain (based on nothing)

Thom Pain (based on nothing) plays at the Old Fitzroy Hotel from May 5 – 10. By Will Eno, directed by Julie Baz

NB: I saw a preview of this show.

It’s hard to know what to say about Thom Pain (based on nothing) that isn’t just, “…um, what?” It’s one of those things which seems to be an exercise in pointlessness – the “based on nothing” in the title is not false advertising. It’s a long, rambling monologue (complete with interval) about nothing.

This play was a critical darling when it was first performed in 2004, but to be honest, it’s not a type of theatre I have a great deal of patience with. Its self-conscious performativity – the title character (played here by David Jeffrey) is very, very aware that he’s telling a long, confusing, pointless story to an audience – is frustrating. While there are some great lines in it (I especially enjoyed, “I disappeared into her, and she, not knowing where I went, left”), it’s very self-indulgent… and dull, to be honest. A big chunk of the audience in the preview I saw left at interval, and it was hard to fault them.

Afterwards, I spent a lot of time thinking about why: what was the point? why should we be interested in listening to Thom Pain ramble about his life? why should this man’s confused ramblings be considered worthy of our time? (“There’s going to be a moment when you only have thirty seconds to live,” Thom says at one point. “You’ll think of me then.” And I probably will, still trying to work out what exactly I was doing with the hour and a half of my life I spent watching this play.) I found it interesting that Eno has imbued Thom Pain with a name – and a resonant name at that. It’s hard to miss the allusion to Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason. So why this name? why this allusion? Because Paine was a revolutionary and this Pain is… painful.

I don’t really have an answer to this question, but it did make me start thinking about another revolutionary pamphleteer from the same period: Mary Wollstonecraft. (The fact that I was thinking about this during the show is probably testament to the fact that I wasn’t really engaged by what was going on onstage.) And that made me wonder what would happen if the central character was a woman. Would this play be nominated for a Pulitzer if it was about a woman narrating confusing, rambling episodes from her life? Would listening to her talk be considered literature, a worthy demand on our time?

Obviously I can’t prove this, but I don’t think it would be. I read an interesting piece the other day by Katie Heaney where she talks about the three types of hate mail she and other female writers receive. One is a type she has called, “Announcement of My Male Existence.” And that’s what this felt like – an announcement of Thom Pain’s male existence, to an audience that is expected to listen to him, to want to listen to him, even though he really has nothing to say. Which made me wonder if this was a deliberate exercise in dullness, but either way, it’s dull, you know?

Others may feel differently, but I find this kind of self-conscious theatre very frustrating. I’m just not that interested in hearing a man self-indulgently talk about nothing and expect me to listen. David Jeffrey does his best as the titular character, but for me, there was no saving this play. If someone’s going to talk about themselves for an hour and a half, I’d like it if they were saying something worth listening to (or even something interesting).