Monday, May 26, 2014

Scenes from an Execution

Photo by Katy Green Loughrey

Tooth and Sinew in association with Sydney Independent Theatre Company (SITCO) presents SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION by Howard Barker at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, Woolloomooloo, Sydney. Season:13th May - 31st May.

SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION is a play from Howard Barker, written, originally, as a Radio Play in 1984, starring Glenda Jackson as Galactia, and was staged in 1990 at the Almeida Theatre, London, with Ms Jackson creating the role again. The play was presented in 2012 at the National Theatre of Great Britain, with Fiona Shaw, and there was a production presented at the Belvoir Theatre, years ago, with Lindy Davies. The role of Galactia, a painter (fictitious) of decided views, is a favourite of powerful actors.
"I don't know what I want to say, and I don't care if you listen or not." – Howard Barker. 
He does care, though, that he is performed. Such, that in 1988 he created his own performance company, The Wrestling School. He first play appeared in 1970, CHEEK, and he is still writing: A WOUNDED KNIFE, in 2009. In this "International" city, Sydney, this hub of theatre culture, we have rarely seen Mr Barker's works, outside University Society's productions. In fact, other than the above Belvoir production of SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION, VICTORY (1983) is the only other professional production of his work we have seen. That was at the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), in 2004, when Judy Davis, both directed and starred with Colin Friels - the production, probably, urged through her want, need, will.  It was a triumph. The New Theatre, in Newtown, has a record of presenting Mr Barker's work: THE HANG OF THE GAOL(1983), THE LOVE OF A GOOD MAN (1978), NO END OF BLAME (1981) and VICTORY(1983), as well. In Adelaide, the Brink Theatre were (are) strong advocates of his work.

His plays deal, generally, with violence, sexuality, the desire for power and human motivation. Famously, Mr Barker called his body of work: The Theatre of Catastrophe - writing that presented a tragic theatre forcing us to recognise our differences. He does not necessarily write to comfort an audience, he will not write to sentimentalise our weaknesses or glamorise inertia. He is drawn to the paradoxical and fascinated by contradiction. Lusty and Fierce. In performance his plays are, usually, a challenge to an audience, early, with confronting images and language, and if you have not got up and left, then you must be ready and willing to engage in an uncompromising vision of what the theatre should be, as it examines the world we live through, and in. I recommend that you stay, for what he has to say is, usually, extremely stimulating and is expressed with great poetical beauty:
"I believe in poetic discourse, in the value of speech, in a non-naturalistic way; it's speculative.
The writing can be a thrill for the actor, it, requiring great rigour, great discipline and great daring, and ultimately, needs from all of us in the theatre space, great exposures of our 'self' - and if one is prepared to do that, be courageous, both the performer and audience, will find his theatre experiences a revelatory and exuberant space to have been participant in.

This production of SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION at the Old Fitzroy Theatre is Directed by James Hilliard, a young director, who appears to have some sophisticated love of language and plays of ideas. He has presented in this theatre, in the past year, a double-banger season of KING LEAR and MEASURE FOR MEASURE; and WITTENBERG. He has the ability to clarify his complicated texts with his actors to give the audience a usually, more than less, cogent experience. His 'academic' deconstruction of the writing technicalities and his ability to stage it are extremely promising. This production has those virtues. What Mr Hilliard does not have, yet, as yet, is the skill to guide and harness his actors to fit their skills and inclinations to serve the play well. He seems to lack sophisticated 'language' to assist his actors to serviceable performances. They seem to be left to their own devices, so, it appears, those that can 'swim', do, those that can't, 'drown'.

In this production, Mark Lee, as Urgentino, and Jeremy Waters, as Carpeta, especially, have grasped the technical 'nettles' of this playwright and balanced it with the contemporary naturalisms of humanity to give the characters a comfort of flesh and blood, that we, the audience can all identify with, and care about. Their balance to the needs of Mr Barker's play, of body and mind, is embodied skilfully. Lynden Jones, with smaller opportunity, also impresses. But, Lucy Miller, as Galactia, our protagonist, our heroine, has only technical facilities of verbal skill, and lacks, in this work, the balancing force of the human frailties of the necessary lust and 'feminist' fierceness. It, mostly, becomes a demonstration of "sound and fury signifying nothing". In the latter act, in the darkness of the prison scenes, it became a fierce bellow of howling noise - unintelligible. To not have the ownership and revelation of the sexual grounding, grind, and desire of this woman, alongside her intellectual convictions and power, is to turn this famous role into a 'talking head' with no human 'guts', and ultimately undermines this production's, this play's possible potential as a completely satisfying evening in the theatre. Unfortunately, the other actors, mostly, are fairly inexperienced, and are challenged by the double whammy of primed skills and heightened controlled truth telling. The demands that Howard Barker requires for his writing cannot be met, consistently by all, and so, this production withers the play's impact.

There was also, for me,  a visible mis-step with the 'bourgeoise' design of this production (Andrea Spinoza) of wooden, empty picture frames, picturesquely hung about the space as if in a 19th century gallery, or residence, as a concept of a Venetian 16th century army barracks, doubling as an artist's studio (1571). (The idea looked familiar to the tidiness of Mr Hilliard's WITTENBURG). Too, the costuming (Christine Bennett), for example, of an artist at work on the scaffolding of a huge wall painting of the recording of the bloody Battle of Lepanto is of 'Disney Land' cleanliness - it does not assist credibility, or location veracities, for the arguments of the play to have contextual power or clarity. The Lighting Design, by Ben Brockman; the Sound Design by Nate Edmondson serve the production well.

The pertinent relevance of the principal debate of this play, as the Australian Federal Minister for the Arts, the Honourable George Brandis, writes to the Australia Council about future guidelines to grant applications for artists questioning the ethics of patrons, could not be more pregnant. Should Galactia's painting of the Battle of Lepanto be propaganda for a state at war, or rather, the telling of a savage truth? A question that, one wonders, Ben Quilty may have recently experienced as the official Australian war artist to Afghanistan. Mr Hilliar in his program notes:
Who is the artist responsible too? Is she responsible to the patron who is paying for the work, in this case the state? Does she have social responsibility to give the people what they want? Is there a political responsibility? Or is she responsible only to her own sense of truth?" 
In this play, Galactia answers forcefully. Ben Quilty did as well, with his AFTER AFGHANISTAN exhibition, in my estimation. (check out his website.)

 Howard Barker, when talking to the press before the 2012 National Theatre production, disowned this play's quality, more or less, and recommended VICTORY (1983) and THE EUROPEANS (1987), as superior. Don't believe him, completely. (THE CASTLE (1985), is one of my other favourites, as well.) This production of SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION at the Old Fitz, fails to hold our attention rigorously, to a play, and playwright (rarely seen in Sydney) that deserves our attention. But, if you are unfamiliar, with Mr Barker's writing, it may just be worth the difficulties of performance. The high level of intelligence, language and argument are refreshing to deal with. More presentations of theatre texts such as this may attract those flocking to lectures of ideas at Writer's Festivals and otherwise. Bringing the audience back to our theatres as venues of dangerous and stimulating ideas, as well as hubs of entertainment - now, that may be a contemporary 'innovation'.

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