Home » Reviews » Scenes from an Execution, National Theatre

Scenes from an Execution, National Theatre

Howard Barker
Directed by Tom Cairns

Pros: Some interesting concepts in the scripts and good performances on stage.

Cons: Sometimes a bit slow, and tries to say a lot of things at once.

Our Verdict: Enjoyable with the usual high production values, but not groundbreaking.

Courtesy of the National Theatre

One thing you don’t expect to see when you pay a visit to the National Theatre is a catastrophic set malfunction. In a way, we were lucky to witness such a rare event, and we were fascinated to see how the staff reacted. During a blackout in the second half in which part of the stage was raised by a hydraulic mechanism of some sort, there was a suddenly a large crunch, followed by a muffled “fuck” from somewhere offstage. The performance continued until the next scene, when a curtain was raised, revealing an eruption of floorboards on the main stage. The performance was stopped, and the stage manager announced they would be trying to “get the floor back to where it was supposed to be”. The crew swept in as the safety curtain went up. After a nail-biting twenty minutes, it was announced that a fix had been put together, and that the performance would continue – hats off to the staff of the NT for their epic quick-thinking and skill in allowing the show to go on! Now, as for the show itself…

Scenes from an Execution is set in 16th century Venice, where an eccentric artist, Galactia, is commissioned to paint an enormous and glorious painting to celebrate Venice’s recent victory in a bloody battle against the Ottoman empire. The artist however, cannot bow to the political pressure, and instead opts to depict the gruesome reality of war, to the horror of her benefactors. The play’s subtext deals with the concepts of artistic freedom and censorship, but also the place of women in society, particularly in the world of art.

Although interesting, one can’t help but feel that the script is trying to do too many things at once, or conversely, not enough. Indeed, a large number of concepts are touched upon and theatrical devices used, almost too many to focus on. For example, the story is at first narrated by a god-like character, who the cast-list reveals to be “The Sketchbook”, in a series of vignettes, as if we were leafing through the sketchbook the artist used leading up to creating the work… but eventually the occurrences of The Sketchbook become more sparse, as if this fascinating idea has been forgotten by the author or director. It feels like this script could use a tidy-up in places to reveal its full potential.

In terms of the interpretation of the work, we are treated to some good performances. Fiona Shaw, as the artist Galactia, revels in the eccentricity of her character. The audience can feel the frustration emanating from the other characters at her bullish decisions, as she sways across the stage. Tim McInnerny, as the Doge Urgentino, is equally energetic, and rather funny in his sometimes sinister role. The cast in general deliver well-honed performances, despite the difficulties of the script. A highlight for me was one of the supporting characters, Prodo, played by Jay Simpson. Prodo is a horrifically injured soldier from the Venetian army who uses his almost comical injuries (a crossbow bolt lodged in his brain, and his guts held in by a special vest) to earn a living showing off his bodily misfortunes for a fee. Simpson’s portrayal is touching and funny, and he is a pleasure to watch.

Scenes from an Execution, at the end of the day, is a fairly well-written script which is staged fairly-well, and which has some fairly good performances. Although it is not anything groundbreaking, it is enjoyable, and worth a visit to the National. I imagine that future audience members won’t be treated to the thrilling intervention of the stage crew to salvage a catastrophic floorboard crunch, but they will at least be able to sit back and enjoy this entertaining production.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

This review was written of a preview performance on 2nd October 2012.

Scenes from an Execution runs at the National Theatre until 9th December 2012.
Box Office: 020 7452 3000 or book online at http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/scenes-from-an-execution

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