When assuming the role of dramaturg for theproduction of Howard Barker’s Scenes from an Execution (1989), I setmyself one preliminary objective: to explore the variations in which eachelement of the production could be enhanced by meticulous research andanalyzation. As Andy Lavender states in his book, Hamlet in Pieces, “Itis easy to mystify theatre-making, assuming that the writer and/or director isa genius.” 1 Needless to say, Lavender is right. We caneasily see a play with both experiential and metaphysical components andglorify its maker – ultimately taking the text at face value and utilizing the obviousto determine our motives. But once Scenes was moved beneath a knife andthe attention of the creative team lay purely within the textual operation andnot within the methods designed by Barker, a genuine interpretation surfaces.
Therefore, for our production, only two distinctive things mattered: 1) Wordsmust always be given precedence and 2) Character interpretation determined thevisual spectacle. Both were the subject of extensive and collaborativediscussions and equally persuaded the outcome of our final performance. Neitherhad forged its way into the most prominent aspect of the production, rather therevision and progressing development of each expanded the understanding of theother.
WordsMust Always Be Given Precedence: Found in The Wrestling School’s mission statementis the theory that “the method for playing Barker’s texts has not yet beenproperly realized.” 2 It seems, due to Barker’s ever-changingstyle and continual development as a playwright, this method may never reach afinal realization. With this in mind, it was apparent for our production thatto produce a unique interpretation while maintaining the essence of a ‘Barkerian’3 performance,we must look away from past and present interpretations and focus primarily oninsight we found in the text. As Charles Lambs reasons, “most of Barker’s playsare set in catastrophic circumstances either immediately before or immediatelyafter a fairly massive social breakdown.” 4 This quote was enticing – if theunderstanding of Barkerian performance was continuously expanding, what if wepurged the idea of a story happening directly after or before catastrophe andinstead placed it hundreds of years later while simultaneously maintaining acharacter’s perception of waiting for a massive social breakdown tohappen? Why not let the journey leading up to the fate of Galactia’s ‘Battle ofLepanto’ be in the hands of someone else? The ‘textual surgery’ then began aswe scrapped all research of previous performances, such as The National Theatre’sproduction in 2012, and looked at whose language we felt determined the courseof the narrative. As an adaptation of the play began, difficultyresided in deciding who was the most reliable character. Initially, theSketchbook seemed like an obvious choice. This character’s narrative authorityin which he/she introduced scenes and made comments about the painting neitherthe characters nor the audience had yet to witness made them an excellentcandidate for workshopping.
But after some debate it came to an agreement that Sketchbookspoke like a historian rather than from first-hand experience. And although itwas an interesting approach to have the story told by Galactia’s own work, itseemed more fitting to let the possession of Sketchbook be in the hands of a futurestory-teller whose perception of the past has been manipulated by a previouscharacter. Therefore, Galactia, became the next choice as she dominated themajority of the scenes in lines and presence, but apparently spoke to no onebut herself. Her responses to those around her only further inflated herselfand her self-definitive mission. Her monologues were obsessive theoreticalqueries about justice, duty, and art in paused moments of reflection as ifeverything stopped around her when she no longer wanted to pay attention. Wedecided to take reference from Barker’s author’s note in Terrible Mouth:…the artist, for whom imagination is a substitutefor lived life, experiences the ambiguities of watching …he finds himself acollaborator, the pencil lending him permission, absolution, the sufficient distanceto both love more, and suffer more, than other men’5Wethen were able to justify that even the characters in the story were mereperceptions made by the artist to define her journey. Galactia ‘finds herselfa collaborator’ to the lives of those around her and exploits this belief topresent her injustice in any way she feels fitting.
This notion is furtherargued by dramatic critic Karoline Gritzner as she states that “in Barker’srecent work the artist protagonists are no longer painters but poets,” and thenotion of suffering becomes a “central preoccupation.” 6 Barker has reworked the dramatic form bymaking Galactia an idiosyncratic symbol of her own metaphysical experiencethrough the manifestation of her artwork. The author has further stated in aninterview with The Guardian that he does not want Galactia portrayed asa ‘sympathetic’ character not only in her own ways but also that she does notdeserve sympathy as well, however, if we are to believe that this story comesfrom how Galactia would like to be portrayed she would ultimately depict thecharacters around her that further emphasized her reasoning. In a way Galactiais an advocate for art and in Scenes there is a transition from aconcern with art’s significance in social change to what powers are diminishinga specific art’s capabilities. Hence why we found it imperative to seek our ownadvocacy in presenting the play from her position. CharacterInterpretation Determines the Visual Spectacle.The previous section’s analysis of whatlead up to the script’s final product was so detailed because it is in thisadaptation that laid the basis for all further conceptualizations of theproduction, as well as all challenges we then came to face.
Once the agreementthat the entire play would be an account of Galactia’s recollection, the setthen needed to act as a creative device which only served what the plotintended. Therefore, the design was exactly precise and referential to howGalactia remembers it focusing solely on what was required to move the scenefrom one to the next. In a way her stage became a place of identity where blankareas existed to demonstrate the less purposeful elements of her memory. Forexample, most canvas’ that were piled on stage were blank, but unwrapped.
Thiswas intentional to provide further emphasis of the work she was currentlycompleting, ‘The Battle of Lepanto,’ but also provided a sense of activity andbusyness which heightened Galactia’s certainty of her importance. The redcolour pattern plastered the floors and was the only shade Galactia used topaint further stressing the scheme used in her painting of the battle. Although the painted memory comes forthmainly in the set design, we also intended for characters to participate inthis pictorial recollection to enhance Galactia’s inability to separate artwith reality. (See below portrayal of ‘Carpeta’ by John Ireland taken byMargaret Smith). Early on we decided that each character would be painted inrelation to the artist’s view of them. Muchlike in her painting of ‘The Battle of Lepanto’ in which she was required topaint men she would never meet, she had to realistically portray theirexpressions through their face and body, to ensure that their place in thepainting’s narrative corresponded with the message she was endeavouring toconvey. Mainly challenges were found indetermining the colours and patterns that would define these characters as wewere hesitant to choose to hastily and without developing a rich understandingof that character and how Galactia perceived them.
Eventually, after individualresearch, Hannah Ghotbi-Ravandi and I sat down for a few hours and discussedthe possibilities that each character could have to further emphasize theirdefining qualities. Upon further reflection, we praised our collaborativeoutlook on the performance, but did not involve the actors we commissioned todevelop what they thought defined their characters. However, looking back, I found the mostdissatisfaction with our audience’s involvement. I was fascinated withexpelling in our production the type of theatre that feels like leisured tourism.I hold a very unpopular opinion that musical theatre is merely escapistentertainment for the masses.
You travel to New York City or London and youfeel this incessant requirement to find yourself on Broadway or West End. Youbuy tickets to The Book of Mormon or Lion King, sitting down inyour seats, you’re hyperactively aware and expectant of a ‘good show.’ Withthis in the back of my mind, I advocated for the idea of placing the audienceseats in spots that were visually obscured by either a set piece or lighting. Iwanted this production to feel almost stumbled upon. For that reason, the way that the script wasedited, it was important that determining character motives would be nearlyimpossible (as their speech and tone was dictated solely by what assisted inpresenting Galactia as a victim) and vocal direction encouraged normal speakingvoices and whispers. We really wanted to push the idea of the audience actingas eavesdroppers rather than invited spectators. I wanted the audience to misslines and therefore have to speculate what the character’s may have said orhave been thinking about.
The viewers cannot ask questions and the actors willnot be able to answer even if they did. Our audience must be forced to gainfrom this event that there’s a backstory to each character, a mystery if youwill, something they may never know. However, upon reflection the idea I feelhad potential was ultimately underdeveloped and lacked support unanimously fromour creative team. I’m satisfied with the attempt we made which I feel didinsert levels of anxiety and frustration from both our cast and audiencemembers, but do think in further productions needs to be revised. I would likeinstead for an audience to be immersed within the set rather than on the edgeof two lengths of the stage. Our first attempt did not expel this entire notionof theatrical tourism as the audience still knew where to sit and how to behavein the presence of an ongoing performance.
The exaggeration and intense themes ofHoward Barker’s work are necessary for allowing the audience to be open-mindedto the experience. In reality, when we face true sorrow and happiness, weoveremphasize its impact on us to justify its means. For Galactia this is nodifferent and she expresses her motives through her art in both physical piecesand through speech. For Barker, language in a way is the basic structure forone’s progression. Exemplified in our creation of Galactia, our purpose beganwith the desire to create a story that in one way justified the state and inother ways justified the artist’s strive for purpose. However, afterconsideration it was apparent that what made Barker’s work relevant was not hisdutiful perception of every human want, but his concentration on how one personcan have a myriad.
Those two features, which my dramaturgy concentrated on,accounted for each aspect of the productions space, performer, and visual imageproducing a final product that was entirely our own making. 1AndyLavender, ‘The Play without the Play’ inHamlet in Pieces: Shakespeare Reworked: Peter Brook, Robert Lepage,Robert Wilson, (London, Nick Hern Books, 2001), pp. 3-44 (p. 9) 2Howard Barker, press release titled Some Notes Towards a Change of Method inPerformance and Text, dated 18 December 1986.3 JamesReynolds, ‘Unearthly powers of invention: speech, report and repetition inrecent Wrestling School productions’ in Howard Barker’s Art of Theatre,(Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2013), pp.
28-37 (p. 30)4Charles Lamb, Howard Barker’s Theatre of Seduction, (London: Routledge,1997) p. 435 HowardBarker, ‘Barker on Terrible Mouth’ in Terrible Mouth, (London:Universal Edition, 1992) p.
36Karoline Gritzner, ‘Poetry and intensification in Howard Barker’s theatre ofplethora’ in Studies in Theatre and Performance, 32.3, 2012, pp. 337-45(p. 338)