Theatre: The corruption of art

SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION BARBICAN LONDON
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The Independent Culture
THERE'S A chilling moment towards the end of Howard Barker's Scenes From An Execution when the 16th-century Doge of Venice hits on an ingenious method for removing the sting from dissident art. You don't oppose it, he muses: turn it into a national treasure. The play creates a sudden claustrophobic sense of protest withering endlessly under the hypocritically accommodating smile of the state.

That there are works of art which successfully resist this insidious absorption is demonstrated by the fact of Scenes From An Execution itself, a drama which, in Barker's superbly vivid and incisive revival for the Wrestling School, has lost none of the troubling power it had when it began life as a prize-winning radio drama or first took to the stage with an intimidating Glenda Jackson in the mighty central role.

Here, the excellent Kathryn Hunter plays Galactia, the painter commissioned to commemorate Venice's victory over the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto. She clashes dangerously with the authorities because of her Goya-like determination to paint the obscenity of war rather than its glory - the sea with "shoals of matted, reproachful buttocks", the melon slices of flesh hacked off by cutlasses and tossed in the air.

Prison is the inevitable destination for such an insubordinate spirit, but in the flurry of caustic ironies at the end, we see that by releasing Galactia the state pulls off its cruellest and most corrupting trick.

It took me a little time to acclimatise to Hunter's outre performance. The wiry limbs that writhe with uncontainable passion, the virtuosic vocal dartings from gravelly smoulder to defiant boom - admirable in themselves, but perhaps a touch histrionic for a physically toiling artist, some of whose working moments must have been more mundane than they appear here.

But her portrayal of Galactia builds to a devastating climax, but also attests to the inspiration of Barker's staging. On the large central rostrum of Tomas Leipzig's set, a dripping canvas is repeatedly hauled from a barrel of water. Is it from one of the galleys at Lepanto? Is it from a painting? When Galactia is released from prison and crouches foetally centre-stage, this canvas suddenly emerges soaked in blood.

Unhooked, it is revealed to be a dress, and Hunter wrestles her way into it in a manner that thrillingly shows a desperate overcoming of revulsion. Then she rises and by an arch of the back and a tilt of the head transforms herself from dissident detainee into a cocktail-sipping socialite at the private view of her paintings. The image of Galactia in a cross between a stylish frock and a butcher's apron brings home with a hideous clarity the cost of compromise and the state's domestication of violence.

Barker's cast, which includes Ian Pepperell as the comically anxious Doge, captured to perfection the tone, pitched between tragic an absurd intensities, that you need for this playwright. Highly recommended.

To 9 Oct (0171-638 8891)

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