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.