Friday, 16 November 2012

Scenes from an Execution

National Theatre, 15 November 2012

Titian's Death of Acteon (National Gallery, London). 
Howard Barker's Galactia presumably conveys the same sickeningly real sense of violence as does late Titian.   

Dramatising challenging issues in aesthetics and morality, what really brings this drama to life is the powerfully romantic central character. A near-masterpiece.

The title is a pun. Nobody is executed, though the central character Galactia is imprisoned and understandably fears she will be eliminated, although the audience understands that the poor old Doge is merely going through the tiresome motions of punishing her.

Rather, it is a work of art that is being executed, and we witness scenes of this work in progress, a vast canvas depicting the Venetian victory at the 1571 Battle of Lepanto.

Galactia, anachronistically a woman painter, creates a work of devastating realism, depicting the slaughter of the battle so violently that anyone viewing it is horrified by the brutality of warfare. Naturally, this upsets the commissioners, the civilised Doge and the Venetian state he represents.

So this is a drama of ideas, familiar from a tradition that includes Brecht and Shaw. Conflict emerges from people's different viewpoints and levels of power, and all views are treated sympathetically. The central character is a genius who challenges social, political and aesthetic conventions, in this case questioning the glory of war, or death generally (in the funeral scene). By doing so, she allows us all to examine how we live our lives.

Supposing, like me, you like this approach to drama, you will be delighted that Howard Barker has written something like this, as there seem to be too few contemporary authors in this tradition.

But something special sets this apart from the works of Edward Bond, the other dramatist with similar ambitions that comes to mind. Galactia is a magnificent, full-blooded creation.

Arrogant, violent, earthy, sensual and apololitical, she indeed blazes like a comet, as the Doge remarks. The reported physicality of her art is extremely plausible.

Among the many fine touches, the most original moment in the work is when she inadvertently annoys a cardinal by refusing to defend her painting, not out of contempt, as he suspects, but because she doesn't know how to. And she is right.

In displaying appropriate inarticulacy in the face of brute reality, the drama briefly touches upon what is otherwise its major weakness. A painting conveys its impact without words, or movement, and is therefore intractable to theatre.

But Barker is primarily concerned with what is 'behind the picture', as the cardinal puts it. We cannot see the art, we get only the discussion of its meaning, a discussion in which Galactia's voice is rightly only one among many. It's as if we are witnessing the battle several stages removed, but it feels as if that level of abstraction is where the most important decisions need to be taken.

Among actual paintings, perhaps Guernica is closest to what is being described, but the comic-grotesque aspects of that work do not convey what Galactia's painting is supposed to have done. I left the theatre wondering why nobody has painted such a scene, and what this says about us. For that reason alone, this is an important drama.

Nonetheless, there may be a problem with a work of art (this drama) that cannot show us what is supposedly a greater work of art (the painting), but can only tell us about it.

The cast were lively, and the direction adequate, but the only truly memorable aspect of the performance was Phoebe Nicholls' tightly controlled Rivera, the critic whose words transform what the painting communicates, deadening or celebrating it depending on viewpoint, but in any case highlighting the limitations of visual art.

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