BWW Review: Steyn, Hopkins and Rebelo Riveting in Howard Barker's Fascinating SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION
I wonder what it is like to watch SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION without a direct link to the arts industries. Being on the inside makes many of the truths that Howard Barker's remarkable play imparts appear self-evident, no matter whether one is working in the visual arts - which lends the play its context - or in the theatre, music or dance. Of course, what makes that which appears self-evident revelatory is the layers of pretence through which Barker cuts. One can imagine creators, commissioners, curators or critics gleefully proclaiming the play's truth; it is just as easy to imagine them squirming in their seats as they see that truth so frankly told. While SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION has gained a reputation of being Barker's most accessible play, a nod of approval that the playwright finds problematic, it is certainly the kind of 'irritant in the consciousness' that he seeks to create through his work.
SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION is about the creation of an artwork: a painting to commemorate Venice's triumph at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Urgentino, the Doge of Venice, has chosen Galactia, an artist who is known to be transgressive, to create the piece. Knowing the risk he has taken, Urgentino tries to push Galactia in what he feels is the right direction; Galactia pushes back, painting what she believes to be the truth of the battle. There is no doubt that what Galactia is creating is magnificent. There is also no doubt that she will remain true to her vision, despite the attempts of numerous people to take ownership of her work - not only the state but also the church, the critics, her daughters and even her subjects. The question is what the consequences will be and whether Galactia is ready to face them when the time comes.
Jennifer Steyn delivers the kind of tour de force performance IN SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION for which she has become well regarded by local audiences. Her Galactia is spirited and sensual. Steyn uses the character's emotional intensity to make her appear naïve, which in some ways, she truly is. In other ways, she emerges as astute a figure as any. Steyn creates a compelling receptacle to house the cornucopia of human contradictions and artistic impulses out of which Barker has constructed this character.
Also delivering glorious performances are Graham Hopkins (as Urgentino) and Nicky Rebelo (who doubles as Ostensible, a cardinal whose approval over the painting has to be obtained and Suffici, an admiral whose presence is central its composition). Hopkins finds both a scolding parent and a petulant child in Urgentino as he is endlessly forced to shift his relationship to Galactia. One is reminded of his similarly definitive portrayal of Cecil John Rhodes in the television series, BARNEY BARNATO. Both performances are works sheer brilliance. Rebelo neatly contrasts his two roles, his affected admiral completely absent from his brusque cardinal.
There was a decision taken to cast several roles in the play with recently graduated students. In her programme notes, Clare Stopford, the director, as a decision that combines the practical (a large cast impacts the budget of a production) and the passionate (Stopford's see part of her work as a lecturer to build bridges between the halls of drama school and the theatre industry). While the use of recent graduates might keep the costs down and their participation here certainly offers the former students a valuable opportunity, the performances are a mixed bag that undercut the production itself at times, especially when building the rhythmic nuances of individual scenes. Khathushelo Ramabulana resonates most strongly as Galactia's lover, Carpeta.
Stopford's direction is strong in the individual scenes, but rhythmically, the play struggles to find its footing as it shifts from scene to scene. The frequent breaks that come about as part of the play's episodic structure feel too even-keeled in their staging; the measured neutrality with which they play out undermines the gathering momentum of the play itself. Nonetheless, Stopford manages to find something in SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION that regularly goes missing in South African stagings of "serious" contemporary plays: humour. Because Stopford allows us to laugh, whether a line is simply funny or in recognition of something terribly human, we allow ourselves to be taken deeper into the play. It is in those transactions that her work becomes masterful.
Although the piece plays well in the intimacy of the Golden Arrow Studio, there is the sense that the SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION - which is almost operatic in its scope - wants a bigger playing space. But bigger stages mean bigger auditoriums and whether a play like this would find a larger audience in the Mother City that the Golden Arrow Studio holds is a key point in making that decision. One can only imagine what Patrick Curtis could do with the stage design of a piece like this in a bigger space; his use of a textured wall with a single, beautiful domed window is a more than sufficient for choice this intimate venue. The neutrality of his design allows Leigh Bishop's beautifully layered and coloured costumes to speak beautifully to the characters, a dialogue further facilitated by Luke Ellenbogen's lighting design.
There certainly are grounds for SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION being Barker's most popular work, despite the playwright's objections to that moniker. Perhaps its origins as a radio play meant that its structure had to be clearer and less ambiguous than a work like WOUNDS TO THE FACE, for it has a clear narrative in which an audience can invest. And while it is unforgiving, it is not completely brutal in the way that, for example, SLOWLY is. And, as a postscript to my early musings on the matter, it will appeal to audiences wider that those with direct links to the arts. We all love a good intrigue, and we all love a good behind-the-scenes expose. That this one is told with such grandeur and from the perspective of such a captivating central character makes for a fascinating couple of hours at the theatre.
SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION until 22 April at 19:30 nightly. Ticket prices are R140 on Mondays through Thursdays and R160 on Fridays and Saturdays. Bookings are through Computicket.