Scenes from an Execution

19 May

Few people write dialogue better than Howard Barker; it’s funny, vibrant and explosive. And Barker’s Scenes from an Execution is a brilliant play.

It explores the relationship between the artist and society.

Galactia has been commissioned by the State to paint the Battle of Lepanto. She does, and the State is not happy. Galactia portrays war as something dreadful. The State wants it viewed as something glorious.

The play is set in Renaissance Venice. But, of course, it’s not. This is not a piece of historical realism. Barker’s characters could be here and now.

Photo by Katy Green Loughrey

Photo by Katy Green Loughrey

And director Richard Hilliar’s production is wonderful. His cast does terrific work. Lucy Miller as Galactia is magnificent; passionate, determined, and joyfully articulate. Carpeta is her lover. He’s another (competing) painter. Jeremy Waters delivers a beautifully pitched portrayal of cowardice that can’t help love its superior. And Mark Lee’s Urgentino, the Doge of Venice, is comic brilliance.

This is very rich theatre. Barker shares a swag of stimulating ideas. A particularly fascinating one involves the way society tames even the greatest art (but I’m not sure I can explore this one without a spoiler.)

So let me focus on just a single idea: the way society tries to control what art says.

In Galactia’s world, it’s the Church and the State who are the obvious powers. I began this response by suggesting it would be a mistake to assume this play is historical, to assume its message is that only in the dark past did we treat artists poorly.

This play demands we ask ourselves NOW what forces determine what art is allowed to say.

Our current patrons are the state, critics and the audience. What do they demand art say?

Let me offer the following list of absurd generalizations:

  1. Australian theatre must not question the extraordinary privileges that most of us enjoy in comparison to the majority of the world’s population.
  2. Australian theatre must not present characters that are intelligent, powerful political agents, as this would imply it might also be true of its audience (which would challenge the complacent acceptance of demand 1.)
  3. Australian theatre must be ‘professional’. That is, regardless of what the art says (not excepting demands 1 and 2) the focus of discussion must always be on the virtuosity of the production. This demand perpetuates a bourgeois emphasis on career, reduces art to a commercial product, and encourages the competition necessary for a capitalist society.

See this play. It’s very, very good. And come up with your own list.

Veronica Kaye


Scenes from an Execution by Howard Barker

Old Fitzroy Theatre til 31st May

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