"It's death to be understood," declares Galactia, the 16th-century artist-heroine in one of Howard Barker's most accessible and stringently witty works – a searching study of the tension between artist, patron, critic and political culture.
Perhaps ironically, it's the piece by this intransigent outsider that is gaining official approval: Tom Cairns's pungently acted, strikingly designed revival is the first Barker play to receive the National's imprimatur. Commissioned to paint a canvas depicting the Battle of Lepanto, Galactia determines to create a harrowing vision of war, "all meat and chopped-up genitalia".
She's flung into prison but the state puts the picture on public display in a hypocritical gesture of tolerance that neutralises its dissidence and turns Galactia into "a celebrity". Fiona Shaw brilliantly communicates the artist's caustic spirit in a production that's admirably alive to the play's austerity and humour.
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