I think I may, possibly, be the first person ever to speak the words of Howard Barker on the a stage of the National Theatre. In 1999, the National Theatre ran a series of Platforms under the title NT2000. A British play was selected for each year of the twentieth century and there were 100 platforms discussing the plays and offering extracts. The play chosen to represent 1983 was Howard Barker’s Victory. Barker (like Bond) was so appalled by the National Theatre’s refusal to stage his works, he did not give them permission to perform any extracts from the play. I chaired the panel on the Olivier stage, discussing his work, his ideas and his relation to the National Theatre. I began by quoting his well-known remark: “I send my plays to the National Theatre for rejection, so that I know I can still see clearly”. This may, possibly, be the first and only time that Barker’s words were spoken on a National Theatre stage until this year when, to many people’s surprise, including my own, the National revived his 1984 radio play, Scenes from an Execution.
The play concerns a great sixteenth-century Venetian artist, Galactia, who is commissioned by the Doge to paint a canvas commemorating the recent Battle of Lepanto, in which a Christian alliance led by the Republic of Venice repelled the Muslim forces of the Ottoman Empire. Galactia is controversial because of her promiscuity and the visceral sexuality of her art. She accepts the commission but is determined to paint a picture that conveys the brutality of the war. The state is infuriated with her painting and they briefly imprison her and commission an alternative painting. However, the alternative is dreadful and so they decide to hang the painting anyway to demonstrate the inclusiveness and liberality of the Venetian state. Galactia watches the crowds gather at the painting and finally accepts an offer to dine with the Doge.
It’s a complicated play which I think is rather misunderstood. Barker has written something like 100 plays and clearly rather resents the fondness of audiences for this piece (I remember him at a conference knocking back an admirer with the disdainful words ‘Oh yes, my “accessible” play’). I think I can see why, for two reason. First, he has written some remarkable plays in the last two decades, but their harshness and austerity (though great verbal richness and beauty) has perhaps worried artistic directors of major theatres. He hasn’t had a new play on a National Theatre, RSC or Royal Court stage since 1994’s Hated Nightfall. He hasn’t been produced by any of them since maybe 1988’s The Bite of the Night at the RSC. He can only get on their stages now with old plays. Second, I think these are valedictory plays. The plays he wrote in the early 1980s - Victory, Scenes From an Execution, The Castle - all seem to me to be saying goodbye to some central plank of political theatre. Victory is his last moment of satire: the bankers scene begins as a satire but the laugh dies in our throats. The Castle is his farewell to political opposition: the play discovers that there is no outside to power and the very end is a despairing longing for anarchy. Scenes from an Execution is a farewell to the idea of the rebel artist. It begins as one might expect as a play about a dangerous artist wanting to tell the truth about war; it ends numbed and unable to know where one stands to change the world. These are plays that evoke one type of political theatre and announce its demise. But these plays are still sometimes seen as great examples of the kinds of theatre they are trying to demolish.
This production is a success, I think. The production is flinty and strange. The Sketchbook (a narrator figure when it started on the radio) appears in modern dress in a floating white cube, an image of the contemporary curator, while the staging elsewhere resembles the best of Barker’s own productions for the Wrestling School, in its austere verticals, its avoidance of realism, its beauty. Fiona Shaw is a superb Galactia, a sensualist, very physical, sparkily intelligent, convincing as an artist, funny when she wants to be, passionately engaged when she needs to be. I’ve seen this play twice before: once in the Almeida’s production in 1990 with Glenda Jackson and once in Barker’s Wrestling School production in 1999, with Kathryn Hunter. At the Almeida it was witty and stylish, almost classical. At The Pit, Barker had directed an abstracted production, with an exordium of lamenting veterans in wheelchairs and a canvas repeatedly lifted from a drum of water. It was art theatre about art. Here it is very much a play of ideas, the debates seeming to move centre stage in a theatre that has produced over a dozen David Hare plays.
However, it seems to me that the play inevitably turns into an allegory of the very project of reviving Scenes From an Execution at the National Theatre. Barker has made such a thing of his opposition to the National that it inevitably is going to seem that being embraced by the National might serve as a kind of neutering of his own oppositional stance, as much as the Doge’s ultimate patronage robs Galactia of her radicalism. The new centrality of the debates in the play make it seem rather more ‘decent’ and ‘civilised’ a play than it has previously appeared. It almost becomes the play as the Doge might have seen it; the exchange of views of art itself a sign of enlightened despotism.
This has the most decisive effect on the final scene. It is the hall in which the painting is displayed. The crowds pass in front of the painting. Sordo is touting for business. The cardinals are bustling. Into this walks Galactia. For some reason, the production now has her in an elegant black dress. Throughout the play she’s been in rough linen clothes, in earthen colours. Now she looks dressed up to the nines. And why not? It’s not every day you have a major painting unveiled by the state. But this anticipates her capitulation to state power at the end of the play. In the other productions I have seen (and the original radio production) she shows up at the hanging in a state of horror, refusing to believe that her painting can have been so neutered. It is witnessing the power of the state that brings her to her knees. The last words of the play are her decision to buckle to power. Here though, she turns up in a killer dress, a laugh on her lips. Her demeanour appeared to say, how silly I was, why can’t we just get along? Of course she accepts the Doge’s invitation to dinner; she’s already dressed for it. And this, in turn, seems to become a kind of apology for Howard Barker. Of course he allows the National to perform his work on their stage. Why wouldn’t he? How silly we all were; why can’t we just get along?
Now, I’m not convinced, actually, that the National Theatre is that much of a monument to conservative, authority and reaction. But it is striking that this play, in all its valedictorianism, its contradictions and its uncertainties, as it prepares to take its National bow, still feels the need to dress a little to the right.