Scenes From An Execution

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Howard Barker’s Scenes From An Execution at the National Theatre paints an interesting portrait of the Venetian state as a superb propaganda machine, shaping its image both at home and abroad through the patronage of civic art; in this case a depiction of the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. The state expects an epic painting celebrating the glory of Venice and her victory, the justness of Venice’s cause. Galactia, commissioned to complete the painting, understands this – but is instead intent on exploring the horror and devastation of the battle.

The doge and his government find the picture not only distasteful and misleading, but treasonous – they throw Galactia into prison as a statement of their disapproval. These conflicting views of the War allow for an interesting debate about the morality of war, as well as the role and power of art and patronage, with the establishment represented in various forms by the doge and also by a critic.

There is an article in the programme about the evolution of the female painter, although this is under-explored in the play – Galactia’s gender obviously influences how she is treated, but there is little direct reference to this. Yet the role of gender in Venetian society at this time is fascinating, and could have been made more prominent.

The play’s conclusion shows the Venetian government bending the situation to their advantage as they take ownership of Galactia’s painting, hypocritically using it to display their ‘tolerance’. This again plays on the question of who controls the meaning of art – the painter or the owner (the viewers seem pretty keen to accept the line of the doge, although that may be because it fits with the view of Venice that they have been fed all their life).

This is all held together by an astonishing performance by the excellent Fiona Shaw; it’s worth going to see for her alone, although the supporting characters are sometimes a bit bland and underdeveloped. Overall it’s an intriguing look at sixteenth-century Venetian art, although its ideas are more prominent than its characters.

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Shakespeare: staging the world

The Shakespeare: staging the world exhibition, coming to an end this month at the British Museum, is an intriguing look at Tudor Britain. The exhibition is grouped by theme, relating artefacts to Shakespeare’s work – although some of these links are rather tenuous, and it is only the first section that is wholly about Shakespeare.

The exhibition does give an intriguing insight into life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the concerns of the people living at this time. It also looks at changing ideals during this period, for example the ideas of nation and kingship forged by previous kings and the way that the modern preoccupation with the monarchy and succession were played out on stage through historical figures from Richard II to Cleopatra.

There is also a fascinating look at Venice during this period, and having studied Venice in depth at University it was nice to see some artefacts in person, from ducats to chopines (high platform shoes). It took me two and a half hours to get around the exhibition, and by the end my attention did start to wander. But my main gripe (with an otherwise excellent exhibition) is the recordings of actors reciting extracts of Shakespeare, loudly and enthusiastically, which were played on a loop in the middle of the exhibits. They were very good, but at certain points you could hear two or three at a time while you were trying to concentrate on reading the text that accompanies the exhibits.

Apart from this, the exhibition proves a very interesting summary of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century life in Britain. The connections made to Shakespeare’s works not only demonstrate the relevance of his works but ground them in reality and locate them within the ideas and influences of the time.

55 Days

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At the start of Howard Brenton’s 55 Days at the Hampstead Theatre I wondered if I would be able to pay attention through the play, which at times is quite hard work – one lady in the front row didn’t seem to face that dilemma, sleeping her way through the first half. But as the play continues your perseverance pays off, and the play is both engaging and thought-provoking.

Starting the play in 1648, as the Army purges Parliament of those supporting the King, is an interesting choice, and meant that I felt a lot more sympathetic towards Charles I than I would have done otherwise. We hear from Cromwell and the rebel army of the tyrannical acts that Charles I has committed, driving them to their drastic action, but we don’t see them – and I still ended up feeling slightly sorry for the king.

I found myself feeling equally sympathetic for both Cromwell and Charles I; Brenton highlights the similarities between the two, suggesting that Cromwell was fighting for a future he struggled to imagine, while Charles was fighting for a past that was a fantasy. The play captures the feeling that both men are out of their time; Brenton says that he is ‘drawn to stories which are about the future breaking out too early.’

The play is full of conflicting voices; John Cooke, the prosecution lawyer, is a moderating influence, reminding us of the constitutional validity of Charles’ argument as he refuses to recognise Parliament’s court, despite the usual sympathy for Cromwell’s cause. It is an example of the play’s ability to highlight the complexity of the situation as a new world is created.

I felt that the best moments occurred during the court scenes, with some of Charles’ ‘eerily graceful’ lines lifted by Brenton from a nineteenth-century transcript of the court proceedings, and allowed Mark Gatiss to fully get into his stride. Brenton hopes that focussing on the climax of the struggle means that there is a clear action sequence; ‘people dragging themselves towards a thing that few of them ever dreamt they would do, or, in Cromwell’s case, never wanted to do, at least not until the very last moment’. There is a striking moment when a Parliamentarian goes to kiss Cromwell’s hand and he recoils; we feel that he is wary of the consequences of Parliament’s actions.

The cast is strong, and in the programme Brenton describes what he believes is the power of theatre; an actor on stage ‘says “I am your king”… everyone in the room knows he’s not, then suddenly, more powerful than any camera, the imagination takes over… and he really is’. This is certainly true of Gatiss, who is a real presence on stage, and commands your attention. He is regal from head to toe as he surveys those around him. Douglas Henshall is also excellent as a confused but imposing Cromwell.

Yet despite its virtues this play is certainly not for those without an interest in the history; it is at times dense and carries an overloading of information, but if you can stick with it it is definitely worth it.