A Tale Of Two Grandes Dames

As the newly appointed head of Arts Council England, Sir Peter Bazalgette might like a taste of what he is in for. Before he starts deciding whether an all-male dance troupe in Salford is worth funding at the expense of continuing Kabuki drama in Suffolk, let me recommend a night out at Howard Barker’s Scenes from an Execution at the National Theatre. The play turns on an arts-funding row in 16th-century Venice, with the competing demands of a dodgy Doge (Tim McInnerny), who wants great art but no trouble with it, and Galactia (Fiona Shaw), a stroppy female painter who is nothing but trouble.

Barker wrote Scenes from an Execution after the Falklands war, in case the nation so far forget itself as to feel victorious. He embraces the “theatre of catastrophe” which harrows and challenges the audience. And he has said he is uncomfortable (I suspect he is rarely anything else) about his play being performed at the dear old National, lest we enjoy it too much in an institutionally important theatre.

Fortunately, Ms Shaw disregards the posturing and has a whale of a time with the role of an awkward-squad woman who enjoys sex and painting. She attends in a desultory way to Carpeta (Jamie Ballard), her young and less talented artist lover, but like most of the creative solipsists who beg for Arts Council funds, she can’t much be bothered with human beings unless she is using them for her own creative purposes.

At one point we wince when she hires a stray Albanian as a model (being unable to get a Turk for ready money) and then ignores her daughter’s respectable horror as the chap gets a little too excited at the sight of a Venetian lovely.

Commissioned to commemorate one of the great naval battles against the Ottomans on a vast canvas, Galactia disregards instructions to prettify the carnage — and a clash of culture and state sponsorship inevitably follows. By turns foolishly combative and recklessly brave, Shaw’s Galactia is without doubt the equal of Glenda Jackson, who played the part in a memorable BBC radio version in 1984. For one thing, she delivers Barker’s dense dialogue (and often monologues) as if she had just thought of its sentiments. She’s also well-matched with the Doge, clad in mustard and maroon silk: a comical but not stupid grand panjandrum (think Lord Patten of Barnes and the BBC). Flayed by the contingencies of church and politics, he somehow emerges triumphant in time for a good dinner.

There’s one major conceptual flaw however: the character of Galactia. A bare-breasted, sexy woman who doesn’t like wars is a creature who flows more readily from the imaginations of leftish male writers in the 1980s than Venice in 1571. Some of the feminist screeds are a lot more like Edna O’Brien in full flow than any of the female artists on whom the heroine might plausibly  be based (excellent programme notes on this, by the way, from the level-headed Richard Cork).

But Barker’s play survives his own tendentious flaw because he allows both the state and the artist in this eternally awkward conversation space to have their say — and some fun along the way. For heaven’s sake, don’t tell him: it is an enjoyable night in the stalls.

I do wish I could have said the same for Strindberg’s Mademoiselle Julie at the Barbican. It came with all the promise of Juliette Binoche in the lead role in a French production, but they should have saved the price of the Eurostar tickets. This production was little short of a catastrophe, and not in the Howard Barker sense either.

If you wanted a textbook example for drama students of how not to let a director’s concept overwhelm the purpose of a drama, then, franchement, look no further. We started in a disco, with Blondie playing and people in DayGlo colours bopping uncomfortably with a man wearing rabbit ears. Apparently, this is life at Mademoiselle Julie’s place, which would be news to Strindberg; he thought it was about Scandinavian gloom and stultified conditions. Of course, productions move time and place. What they cannot do along the way is lose their soul and purpose. And from the moment Jean (Nicolas Bouchaud) begins to seduce Julie, things feel wrong. This ill-starred, class-defying couple are clearly not remotely into each other, and if the French can’t put sexual passion on stage, then what are we paying our EU contributions for? Jean caresses her foot with all the passion of a busy podiatrist. She pulls on her knickers the morning after as if she is late for work.

The set looks amazing: a Le Corbusier-style penthouse. But that in turn diminishes the sense of division between masters and servants on which the play turns. Patrick Marber, hardly a traditionalist, managed to keep that in a much better 1995 TV adaptation, After Miss Julie, which focused on the transition of social mores and political power as the Attlee government came into office.

Really, we all turned up to see La Binoche. She does have presence and a kind of “so-what?” careless rapture. But her big speeches, unlike Ms Shaw’s, don’t seem to arise from any deep affinity with the circumstances and her tragic end felt like the arrival of an overdue bus. On this showing, the star of French screen should stick to celluloid. As for the British stage, I doubt she’ll be back soon.

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