London’s critical darling at the moment is Howard Barker’s Scenes from an Execution, directed by Tom Cairns and featuring Fiona Shaw as Galactia, at the National Theatre. (A new edition of the play from Oberon Books is now available.) The mainstream reviews are near-unanimous in their praise.
Michael Billington at the Guardian:
[This] is a fine revival by Tom Cairns of Howard Barker’s tremendous play about the relation of the artist to the state. … it’s a measure of Barker’s subtlety that he shows how even the most transgressive art can be co-opted by the state. … a production that does rich justice to the play and makes nonsense of any suggestion that Barker, in having his work done at the National, has mirrored Galactia’s own absorption by the establishment.
Aleks Sierz at The Arts Desk:
Barker’s plays are the theatre of extremes. Scenes from an Execution is hypnotic, hallucinatory, nightmarish, stuffed with ideas, naked emotions and psychological contradictions. … It’s an endlessly fascinating series of dialogues about how art is uncontrollable, and human beings perverse. It burns with disturbing and violent ideas. It is a thrillingly contemporary work of art, about art. … In the end, the play is better than the production, and Barker’s work remains emotionally true, poetic psychologically and full of startling insights.
Paul Taylor in The Independent:
In a bravura performance, Fiona Shaw brilliantly communicates the animal energy, the dishevelled, uncircumspect sensuality and the caustic, uncompromising spirit of this artist who sits sketching with her legs wide apart and even goes to her trial with a breast popping out. … The production, admirably alive to the play’s mix of austere intellectual rigour and knockabout, anachronistic humour, presents the faux-costume drama in sets by Hildegard Bechter that have the pure geometric beauty of modern abstract art.
Charles Spencer in the Telegraph:
[His] conclusion, that art which initially causes outrage is often eventually accepted into the canon of classics — and is somehow rendered safe in the process — strikes me as both true and wise. Tom Cairns directs a robust and often absorbing production, with an especially fine supporting performance from Tim McInnerny and his amazingly long neck as the Doge, alternating between silky menace and vein-bulging rage.
And, for good measure, Andrew Haydon in Postcards from the Gods:
In simple terms, Scenes From an Execution, staged at the National Theatre, now, feels so timely that it almost seems impossible that the play is already 28 years old. It speaks to our post-Olympic arts world (and to the late/post-Afghanistan/Iraq world), perhaps more eloquently and urgently than even it might have spoken in 1984 … an exciting, intelligent take on the play … We can all imagine a play about a play that imprisons an artist because they don’t like their art. And thanks to recent well-publicised versions of the story from China and Iran, we know this narrative all too well. Barker’s genius is to give his authority figures a more subtle argument. … How would it be, he asks, if the state were to pride itself on being able to contain, even support something critical of itself. What if an artist’s criticisms of the state were not banned, or reviled, and the artist not imprisoned, but if they were state-funded and the artist were invited to dinner as a celebrity.
I entertain hopes, however false, that the success will have two consequences. First, that the production of Scenes will lead to more productions of Barker’s later plays (for he has continued to develop as a dramatist in the nearly 30 years since Scenes was written; Hurts Given and Received, his latest portrait-of-an-artist play, is as different from but as brilliant as Scenes from an Execution as What Where is different from but as brilliant as Waiting for Godot); and second, that the work of Barker’s own company, the Wrestling School, will now be presented to greater visibility and perhaps even visit the United States sometime soon. American drama, which has a tendency to wallow in its own maudlin sentimentality (a remnant of the melodramatic genre in which so much American drama seems firmly rooted), could use more of his example. And certainly his perspective could have shed light on the New York Times‘ recent unimaginative trawl through the idea of shock and art, “Shock Value.”
In the meantime, Scenes from an Execution continues at the National Theatre through 9 December.