Scenes from an Execution – Tooth and Sinew belt us with a rich serve of Howard Barker. (Theatre Review)
Scenes From an Execution
Tooth and Sinew in association with Sydney Independent Theatre Company
The Old Fitzroy Theatre
“I wish I were not sensual… I wish I had not got from my mother, or my father was it, this need to grasp and be grasped, because it drives me into the arms of idiots who want to crush me. Wonderful, idiotic, crushing in the night. Can’t you just crush me in the night?” Howard Barker
It is impossible to see a Howard Barker play and separate oneself from the primary tenets of Theatre of Catastrophe, as this is the reason for writing, performing and seeing the play, and yet one of the primary problems with Scenes from an Execution, particularly when the production is as spectacular as the Richard Hilliar driven Tooth and Sinew performance currently at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, is its accessibility and our unashamed desire to appropriate the play and turn it into a metaphor for our times. Which it is – but it also isn’t. It is particularly tempting to make Scenes from An Execution about the collective ‘us’ when we have a ridiculous budget handed down by a bunch of nincompoops that claims 1/5 of its savings from foreign aid cuts in the wake of their probably successful attempts to choke the ABC to death on an empty purse. “Foul Play” we cry in unison as we clink our glasses of Cabernet. Yet, as much as I wish Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey were going to see Scenes From an Execution, I have a bad feeling they’ll miss it, no matter how good the reviews are, and that bad feeling leads to the awkward admission that Howard Barker knew they’d miss it, expected them to miss it, and never intended the play for them in the first place. This play was written for its audience, the same audience that were present when I went, and the same audience that will be there when you go – because go you must. We can easily turn Scenes of an Execution against the people absent from the room, but can we turn it against ourselves?
Having said all that, it is equally against Theatre of Catastrophe for me to offer up my alternate ‘meanings’ for our mutual discomfort, as Barker knows only too well what a sleeping pill at night these interpretations are for the thinking theatre lover. If I am to ‘obey’ the laws of Theatre of Catastrophe, then ‘there is no message’, even if I may have successfully achieved severing of the collective ‘WE’ at this point and am starting to feel uncomfortable (who needs a comfortable theatre critic?). I should list the laws for those of you good enough to have not clicked on the link: We only sometimes agree, Laughter conceals fear, Art is a problem of understanding, There is no message, The actor is different in kind, The audience cannot grasp everything; nor did the author, We quarrel to love, The critic must suffer like everyone else, The play is important, The audience is divided and goes home disturbed or amazed. If these are the ‘laws’ (for want of a better word) of Theatre of Catastrophe, then we can understand why Barker is so dissatisfied with his most popular play Scenes from an Execution, because it is so accessible, that appropriation becomes simple, and there is great danger in the audience leaving stirred but satiated. Yet, this production by Tooth and Sinew is so good, many of the discombobulating contradictions that Howard loves to flatter us into thinking we will appreciate (if not enjoy) are there in the very fine performances.
Lucy Miller is an appropriately complex and thrilling Galactia. If I am to battle within myself under the spotlight of such a performance, let me suggest the following as my personal grappling contradictions. Galactia, although brought to throbbing brilliant life by Lucy Miller, was written by a man and exhibits an appropriation of the phallus that applauds penis envy. It suits my feminist opinions to have a Galactia, and performed by a woman with the theatrical competence of Lucy Miller, she becomes the kind of super structured woman I believe history to have ignored in favour of supporting the weak and insipid men driven by hysteria and ego around her – but I have to equally admit, in the brilliance of Howard Barker and Lucy Miller, Galactia gains her respect by acting like a man, and exhibits her own ego crushing dominance on everyone around her, particularly (I squirm here) a young talented female painter (her daughter Supporta perfectly realised as voiceless and yet commentator chorus by Nicole Wineberg) who is probably her only genuine rival, and who makes an appeal to her based on her own talent that her mother is nurturing inside. Supporta’s faint and yet potent desire to be heard is the only genuine and compelling argument thrown at Galactia and it is shouted down amid the refusal of Galactia to hear, until finally Supporta becomes the only genuine victim of the painting, in that she is expelled from her mother sight, and more important – tutelage. Everyone else survives. The staged battle between these two brilliant actresses was, for this uncomfortable critic, the climax and highlight of a thrilling night at the theatre.
Another contradiction brought to the fore by Lucy Miller’s exuberant and fecund performance is the question of the grant originally offered. Does it only make me squirm when Galactia offers to return the money she was paid on commission? Surely our villains here Urgentino, performed by Mark Lee in a disarmingly charming and appealing way (impossibly likeable and totally kissable) and the deliciously smarmy Ostensible, gifted us by a splendid performance by Lynden Jones preoccupied with Galactia’s bralessness (that makes him appear so shrewd and sleazy a Priest we’re just waiting for the accusations of child abuse), are to blame for offering money in a certain spirit and then becoming furious when it did not buy what they bargained for? But how prepared is an artist in today’s culture to work outside the bounds of grants and funding? We can smile collectively in Independent Theatre at this one, but the very nature of handing over currency is that one is making a purchase. Gough Whitlam risked enormous unpopularity in 1973 for the purchase of Blue Poles, especially considering it cost the country 1.3million, and he had to sign the cheque personally, but it can easily be argued this is a controversy the painting anticipated, described and requests. It is now estimated to be worth close to 100 million, but it is hardly a financial success, seeing as it is unlikely the country will ever sell, as the controversy has contributed to its value – controversy, ironically linked to the cost of its purchase – and its value linked to its remaining in Australia. Grants and funding are essential to the relevance of art. We must pay for that which offends us, or it loses its value, but why must we pay for that which offends us, particularly when art loses its value if it doesn’t offend us? How do we love each other through such tensions?
The above is a small taste of the joys and irritations of Scenes from an Execution, the exuberance and the problems Howard Barker loves to throw at us, but cannot possibly do without the assistance of a committed director and a truly brilliant cast and list of creatives. Richard Hilliar is proving to be more and more reliable as one of the great up and coming Sydney directors to watch as he assembles a stack of consistently potent productions to his resume. The old Fitz has been good to him in the first half of 2014, with his other wordy, immaculately performed Wittenberg being a great start to the year. For Scenes from an Execution, Andrea Espinoza surrounds the walls of the stage in empty frames, making the stage one itself, as we are compelled to make our own art out of our own emptiness. Ben Brockman shrouds the frames in light spectrum colours, depending on scenes, and Nate Edmondson supplies us with heavy-handed sound technique that both meets the radio origins of Scenes from an Execution and matches the dialogue heavy passionate performances. Christine Bennett does a great job with costumes that are both true to the period Scenes From an Execution purports to own and ironic in their relationship to the performances.
But most of all, this is a great cast, with the central focal point being the fantastic Lucy Miller who could thaw the coldest heart with her thumping passion, Mark Lee who disarms us by making ugly gorgeous, Nicole Wineberg as the brilliant banished woman and the slithery Lynden Jones who is also having a super 2014. Jeremy Waters cuts a splendid performance as Carpeta (don’t you just LOVE these names) the man naked in all his humiliation at the start, repeatedly humiliated by love through to the end, struggling to catch up to his lover and himself throughout the play – both disarmed and seductive together. Peter Maple is a compelling and mysterious Prodo, a man who literally wears his wounds like a crown, who can’t be damaged by the weapons of war but who can be torn to ruin by words. Katherine Shearer is a suitably beautiful Dementia and an equally beguiling Rivera. Another splendid scene occurs between Shearer and Miller when Galactia won’t be rescued by the benevolence of a critic who thinks she’s far too clever – a scene that struck uncomfortably at my heart! Brendan Miles is a suitable proud and mystified as the man who should have been painted in his glory, but instead is painted as executioner.
As the inappropriate length of my review indicates, Scenes from an Execution is a standout in the 2014 Sydney theatre program this year, and one not to be missed. When you go, make sure you leave time for hefty debate after, and always remember to love each other.