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.