Spalding Gray ends the first part of his monologue Swimming To Cambodia with the words, "I suddenly thought I knew what it was that killed Marilyn Monroe." Watching the final moments of Howard Barker's Scenes From An Execution, I experienced a similar possible inkling regarding Sarah Kane.
I do not make that remark at all glibly or preciously. Barker's dramatic disquisition upon the turbulent relationships between artist, patron, critic and social-political culture, like the best productions of his best works, illuminates our understanding through the presentation of a series of grim, bleak events. Its moral and intellectual rigour are, it goes without saying, triple-distilled throughout the fable of painter Galactia's execution of a vast canvas to commemorate Venice's victory at the battle of Lepanto. Galactia's determination to spurn the banalities of celebratory civic art in favour of an epic portrayal of the true butchery of battle is partly a matter of integrity, but also the product of an arrogant desire to attain the notoriety of the principled maverick. When, in a textbook example of "repressive tolerance", the Venetian state neutralises Galactia not by suppressing her work but by exhibiting it proudly – by digesting her, so to speak – she finally realises how she has become ensnared; the agony which passes across her face as the Doge invites her to dine with him, as a "celebrity", is what provoked my personal epiphany.
The potential for arid, intellectual hectoring is, as often with Barker, great; even as he increasingly directs his own plays for his dedicated company The Wrestling School, he continues to run the risk of having actors merely mouth arguments rather than create characters: Victoria Wicks's critic Rivera still tends towards this dangerous area, and Ian Pepperell's Doge avoids it largely by dint of his (underrated) skill in bathetically puncturing the dignity of the character he plays. The vast majority of the burden, however, sits on the shoulders of the actor playing Galactia. In Kathryn Hunter, Barker has found a perfect foil for his writing: a performer as intellectually acute as he is, but whose performances are consistently informed by a passion, an animation, a spiritedness which speaks directly on a human level. Hunter presses into service every note and timbre in her vocal register, every muscle in her face and body to convey moods and nuances; at times, she uses her back as if she were a tragic cousin to John Cleese. As she lunges, rushes, strides and climbs around the huge wooden rostrum, wires, pulleys and traps of Tomas Leipzig's set, Hunter's Galactia is a constant, compelling reminder that, for all their often-seeming opacity, Barker's concerns are not abstract but rooted in life.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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