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Review Round-up: NT stages Scenes from an Execution

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After years of waiting, playwright Howard Barker finally has a work at the National Theatre, with his play Scenes from an Execution opening at the NT Lyttelton last week (4 October 2012).

The play is about the shadowy territory between personal ambition and moral responsibility and was first written for radio before being adapted for the stage in the 80s.

It stars Fiona Shaw, Jamie Ballard and Tim McInnerny, among others. Directed by Tom Cairns, Scenes from an Execution runs at the NT Lyttelton until 9 December.

Michael Coveney

…major triumph for playwright Howard Barker…director Tom Cairns, designer Hildegard Bechtler or Fiona Shaw…(Tim McInnerny giving the perfect performance) and the prosecuting Cardinal (William Chubb equally good)…Bechtler’s brilliant setting of great slab-like mobile squares resembles a room full of giant Mark Rothko paintings, which change colour from oatmeal to grey to murky red under the lighting of Peter Mumford, with an evocative, muffled soundtrack by Ben and Max Ringham. This is one of the best uses of the difficult Lyttelton stage I’ve seen…There’s a pugnacious tone, and a liberated style, about Barker at his best that is unlike anything else on our stages today. And that is because he doesn’t write plays. He writes theatre. The audience is hungry.

Fiona Mountford
Evening Standard

…Full marks to the National, then, for reviving what is probably Barker’s best-known and most accessible piece, complete with a hulking great central part for a semi-clad Fiona Shaw…the play could morph into a blazing feminist tract or a fierce discussion about the compromises inherent in state-funded art. It dabbles tantalisingly with both, but as ever Barker tilts at too many windmills in one go and ends up saying nothing particularly original. It doesn’t help that every character is perpetually overstated, with a fierce insistence on anachronism. Still, it’s an overripe plum of a role for Shaw and there’s no doubting her commitment to the part’s physicality…And McInnerny’s equivocating Doge, patron cum tyrant, is a constant pleasure.

Paul Taylor

…this 1986 play is one of Howard Barker's most accessible and stringently witty works - a
searching study of the fraught relationship between artist, patron, critic and political culture…In a bravura performance, Fiona Shaw brilliantly communicates the animal energy, the dishevelled, uncircumspect sensuality and the caustic, uncompromising spirit of this artist…Tim McInnerny is wonderfully absurd and sinister as a frantic, idiotically self-pitying Doge…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 Bechtler that have the pure geometric beauty of modern abstract art…

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

…Fiona Shaw plays the painter with wit and an Irish brogue, as well as her usual fervour…There is, however, something self-congratulatory about this play. Galactia…comes across as a self-portrait of Barker as a middle-aged woman, determined to show the bloody horror of war when what the authorities want is a celebration of power…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. Hildegard Bechtler’s ambitious, multi-level set is evidently too clever for its own good, however. On the first night, the performance had to be stopped for several minutes when the scenery jammed. It would be unkind to suggest that this was the most entertaining moment in the show – but not untrue.

Libby Purves

…Tom Cairns’s production of Howard Barker’s play is a marvel — a philosophical, funny and wise tightrope-act. Romantic and cynical, irresistibly comic, but moving, grumpily humane. It blew me away…(Shaw) has the role of her life: a brilliant artist in middle age, blazingly sensual with her young lover Carpeta, witty and stroppy and intense and honest and rude. Shaw gives all this both barrels…Another marvellous performance is Tim McInnerny’s as The Doge…The resolution, in which the State decides to play it magnanimously by absorbing the controversial picture, seems to make the author and his heroine even angrier on behalf of art, which is “not meant to be understood”. A lovely, cynical chatter of jealous rivals and a final shiningly redemptive encounter complete a tale from which we are forbidden to take any simplistic message. Wonderful.


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