Review: Scenes From an Execution

October 12, 2012
  • Rating: ★★★★☆
The National Theatre

Howard Baker is lauded by the late playwright Sarah Kane as a modern-day Shakespeare. It’s not terribly surprising she is such a fan – both are fond of taking the relatively mundane and contorting it into the unfathomably awful.

Like Kane’s seminal play Blasted, Baker’s Scenes from an Execution, directed here by Tom Cairns, starts with a scene of rather grubby domesticity, before transforming into something altogether more visceral.

Galactia, played by the excellent Fiona Shaw, has been commissioned to paint a vast canvas of the Battle of Lepanto on behalf of the people of Venice.

The painter, though, has a less idyllic version of the battle in mind than her superiors, and proceeds to conjure a bloody vista that would cause a butcher to part with his lunch.

The staging is suitably epic: the narrator glides onto stage in a glowing cube and the sheer size of the artistic endeavour is awesome to behold.

The historical backdrop takes a back-seat to Baker’s musings on the nature of relationships: between man and woman; young and old; artist and critic. But it is Shaw’s performance, and her chemistry with the humourless Venetian Doge, that make Scenes from an Execution the engaging, surprising and often moving play it is.

First published in City A.M.