Commentary – Scenes from an Execution (the first half), final dress – National Theater


So. Thursday morning, 10 AM. I’ve decided my bad ankle means no dancing for me tonight. But I want to go out. I look at Google Calendars and see my friend Tim Watson is off to see Scenes from an Execution at the National Theater. It’s described as “funny” and stars Fiona Shaw. I see there are some front row tickets available for twelve quid. I buy them. Job done.

When I arrive at the National, I discover the show is running late, and that the “first preview” is now being billed as a “final dress.” We are offered the opportunity both to watch the show AND get our money back (as they say the show may be stopped in the middle) and I take it. With a running time of 2:45, an 8 PM start time now means that my jolly trip to the theater is about to become a Friday morning death march at work, and I want to be able to leave at the interval with a clear conscience. Getting home at midnight is just NOT the way to be a responsible arts lover and worker bee. Of course, I know that if I love it, I’ll stay.

It starts. A man is flying overhead in a box; Fiona Shaw is sitting on the floor in the most horrid rag while a naked man is draped across a rock. The man in the box tells us she is Galactia, female artist of the Renaissance; the man on the rock is her model and lover. She is preparing to paint the battle of Lepanto on commission for the Doge of Venice. Shaw approaches the man on the rock and starts a lusty scene. Her breasts are falling out of her top; I realize, with horror, that in my seat I am perfectly positioned to discover if she’s actually completely without undergarments. I do NOT want to know. Somehow, Entertaining Mr Sloane turned the exact same situation into high comedy; but as scene after scene goes by with the same dress and my eyes at crotch level, I find myself just incredibly uncomfortable and looking at all sorts of different places on the stage.

A man comes on stage with an arrow sticking out of his head. He can make it twitch. Galactia gets him upset, does some quick sketches, and brusquely sends him off stage. This marks the end of the comedic section of this play.

Now as the play goes on, I start having troubles with the script. I think back on my knowledge of art history. There is no Galactia. The problems she’s facing as a woman painting in Renaissance Italy are purely imaginary. She’s not famous for her realism; no one has ever spoken of the Venetian artist Galactia because there has never been such a person. There are no daughter painters worrying about her legacy to them as a gender; there is no female art critic giving lectures on politics. There is no one worrying about a female artist’s outrageous behavior at a funeral or her flaunting of social conventions. It’s all made up. They are debating things that are irrelevant in the historical context. The women of this time were not allowed to do any of these things.

We might as well be watching an episode of Mork and Mindy. I imagine its star is Space Commander Galactica and her glitterboots of wonder, single-handedly saving Venice for democracy and freeing all women to do and say what they want for all time. Only in my version, things are actually funny. Fiona Shaw and Robyn Williams would probably make an outstanding theatrical pair.

When the interval rolls around, I don’t care about Galactia and her imaginary daughters and the painting she never painted because she didn’t exist. Her struggle to be personally true and free of the limits of politics in her work have no resonance. I leave, and I realize that, even though I can rebook, and would be happy to do so for full price for a good play, I don’t consider this worthwhile, because despite some tremendous acting all around, the script is a dud and doesn’t merit nearly a three hour commitment.

I recognize that this was sold to me as a dress rehearsal rather than even a preview, and I give my feedback to you with these caveats. The problems I saw were due to the script, at such an essential level that I do not believe they can be overcome. Other people may feel differently; reviews of the entire show will be coming out soon. I will read them carefully to see if this show was able to salvage itself in the second act; I fear it is an impossible task.

(This review is for a semi-preview, as described, given on Thursday, September 27th.)

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5 Responses to “Commentary – Scenes from an Execution (the first half), final dress – National Theater”

  1. bb Says: . Galactia is based on Gentileschi I believe…

  2. Sarah Says:

    You should have made a bit of research and find out something about the aesthetic of the person who wrote the script you complain so much about. It’s sad to listen that you’re merely interested in what is true and really happened in history. Theatre is art, and as such involves imagination. If you can’t understand that, it’s a promblem. I didn’t like the production of the NT either, but a generalization like this made on unexisting bases it’s a bit too much.

    • webcowgirl Says:

      Normal people do not do research on shows before they go: they pick what sounds interesting and go to it. My reviews are aimed at people like this – what I’d call “normal” people. You’re welcome to write your own reviews aimed at people who have nothing to do in during the day but research artistic endeavors they’re thinking about indulging in. Most people do something completely different: they work.

      • Sarah Says:

        I work too but a bit of culture never hurt anyone, and theatre (and art in general) is not merely about entertainment. If you wanted a lecture on 16th century Venetian art you should have stayed home and read a book about it. If it is still too much go to the cinema and see a comedy: there you would not have been troubled with thinking.

      • webcowgirl Says:


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