The National Theatre’s production of Scenes from an Execution with Fiona Shaw opens on 27 September; in 2008 I reviewed the Potomac Theatre Company production with Jan Maxwell here in New York. As a matter of timely interest, I republish it below. A new edition of the play is coming soon from Oberon Books.
Scenes from an Execution by Howard Barker. Directed by Richard Romagnoli. Original music by Peter Nilsson. Sound design by Ben Schiffer. Lighting design by Laura J. Eckelman. Scenic design by Mark Evancho. Costume design by Julie Emerson. With Jan Maxwell (Galactia), David Barlow (Carpeta), Alex Draper (Urgentino), Patricia Buckley (Gina Rivera), Timothy Deenihan (Ostensible), Peter Schmitz (Prodo/Sordo/Man in Next Cell), Robert Zukerman (Suffici) and Allison Corke (Sketchbook). Also with Lucy Faust, Justine Katzenbach, Rachel Ann Cole, Will Damron, Jordon Tirrell-Wysocki and Willie Orbison. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes; one intermission. A presentation of the Potomac Theatre Project. Reviewed at the 9 July 2008 performance. At The Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street, New York, 1-26 July 2008.
Anna Galactia (not unlike the historical Artemisia Gentileschi) is a middle-aged woman, a brilliant and stubborn sensualist and the greatest painter of Renaissance Venice. Commissioned by the state of Venice through Urgentino, the Doge, to commemorate the Battle of Lepanto, Galactia determines instead to depict the suffering of the soldiers in battle and the commanders’ indifference to that suffering. Needless to say the Doge (as well as the Church and the Military, whose interests the Doge must juggle for the continued health of the democracy) is not pleased, though the work itself is unutterably powerful. Galactia fully expects to see the painting burned and herself martyred for her intransigence, but she gets neither: ultimately, the painting is displayed for all the public to see and becomes a great popular success; applause is rendered to the government for its humanistic and democratic open-mindedness; and Galactia becomes a celebrity, welcome at the tables of Venice’s most rich and powerful representatives.
Scenes from an Execution, originally written in 1985 as a radio play and adapted for the stage a few years later, is Howard Barker’s most popular and most frequently-revived play; though it’s not his best play of that period (that designation belongs more to The Castle, his first formal tragedy, or Victory), it is nonetheless an accessible, often very funny and terrifically entertaining evening. The energetic production directed by Richard Romagnoli (an associate of Barker’s Wrestling School) for the Potomac Stage Project, running here through 26 July, is fortunate to have Jan Maxwell for its Galactia. Seizing on the character’s arrogance and headstrong will, Maxwell owns the play throughout.
As Galactia’s personal faults become more and more evident, she is more and more at the mercy of the Doge (Alex Draper), an immeasurably better politician who nonetheless is a genuine connoisseur of the painter and her work. At the end of the play, explaining the decision to exhibit the work, he says:
To have lost such a canvas would have been an offence against the artistic primacy of Venice. To have said this work could not be absorbed by the spirit of the Republic would be to belittle the Republic, and our barbarian neighbors would have jeered at us. So we absorb all, and in absorbing it we show our greater majesty. It offends today, but we look harder and we know, it will not offend tomorrow. We force the canvas and the stretcher down the gagging throat, and coughing a little, and spluttering a little, we find, on digestion, it nourishes us! There will be no art outside. Only art inside.
It is this idea of absorption into the community that renders the art powerless to offend, as well as powerless to change the community or the world. (And Galactia’s status as a woman in Venice helps this along. “If it had been painted by a man it would have been an indictment of the war, but as it is, painted by the most promiscuous female within a hundred miles of the Lagoon, I think we are entitled to a different speculation,” another painter says.) Though it might be easy to leave the Doge with the last word of the play, it belongs as it should to Galactia, whose “Yes” leads her to an honored seat at the table of the powers that first sought to suppress the painting and punish the artist.
Barker denies closure to the issues he raises: these are questions, this is the situation of the artist who accepts patronage and the democratic community which seeks to recognise her in promoting its own self-validation and self-congratulation, and there we have it. Romagnoli’s spare production sharpens the focus of the conflict; we never see Galactia’s work (indeed, we don’t even get to see her sketch; Maxwell’s hand as it travels over her sketchpad holds no pencil). We see only the artist and her condition.
Maxwell is a powerful, energetic and sensuous Galactia, who leads her younger lover, Carpeta (a comically effective David Barlow, who may as well physically wrap himself around Maxwell’s little finger), like a puppy on a leash; a good lover, not even he can contain her arrogance and stubbornness. With loose hair flying in all directions, loose clothing draping over her body’s curves and little make-up on her sharp-featured face, Maxwell is not afraid of being disliked, of refusing the audience’s sympathies. Her performance is matched by Alex Draper as the Doge, supercilious but emotionally rich and engaged. Among the rest of the ensemble cast, Peter Schmitz must also be mentioned — as a victim of the battle who learns from Galactia that there’s more than one way to exploit one’s own suffering for cash, he delivers a delightfully memorable performance.
The day-job beckons so I can write little more right now (much as I would like to), except to urge you to see Scenes from an Execution before it closes, all too soon, on 26 July. Artists (as well as Urgentino-like arts administrators) will all find something to turn towards themselves in Barker’s coruscating self-criticism; for the audience, it’s a peek into the deepest recesses of the kitchen, as well as their own responses to demanding work. (At the end of the play, a character describes the reactions of the Venetian public to Galactia’s painting. “It is [at] the other end, the exit, you should listen,” he tells Galactia as they watch the visitors to the gallery. “Some have catalogues, but most can’t read. The ones who can’t read gasp, the ones with catalogues go ‘mmm.’ So it’s either gasp or mmm, take yer pick.”) This creates an admirable bookend to the PTP’s previous production in New York, last season’s staging of Barker’s other portrait-of-the-artist play, No End of Blame. …