The Theatreguide.London Review
Lyttelton Theatre Autumn-Winter 2012
It's easy to summarise Howard Barker's 1985 drama: in Renaissance Italy a woman artist is commissioned to paint a mural-sized tribute to a military victory but creates a realistic depiction of the horrors of war instead.
From that, and the playwright's reputation as a political writer, you can deduce that the play will raise questions of artistic freedom, feminism, war and both political repression and political expediency.
All those debates are there in the play, presented as eloquently and thought-provokingly as you could wish. But you might not guess that the characters will be more complex and human than is typical of thesis-driven drama, nor that there is a degree of earthy humour to the play, so that the theoretical and political issues frequently take a back seat to the personal stories.
Barker's artist Galactia is the finest painter in Venice, and she knows it. She's also dedicated, antiwar, unbending, personally slovenly, uninhibitedly sexual and almost deliberately self-destructive. She knows her painting won't be accepted, and wears that as a badge of honour, as if creating acceptable art would be a failure and an act of cowardice. She's also frequently very funny.
It takes an actress of some power to carry all that without lapsing into cuteness or stridency, and this role is one more triumph for the seemingly unstoppable Fiona Shaw, who uses her gangly physicality, her rich intelligence and her willingness to expose herself (literally as well as emotionally) to create a multi-dimensional, frequently self-contradictory, but always believable and sympathetic portrait.
Her Galactia can be fired up by her artistic vision, fence verbally with her patrons and critics, coolly dismiss supporters, welcome destruction, panic under arrest and be easily distracted by her lust for her lover, all as part of the same character who we recognise and accept even as, realistically, we're never fully able to understand.
But this is not a one-woman show. Tim McInnerny makes the Doge, the political figure who commissions the painting, into a Salieri figure, a man with just enough artistic sensibility to recognise genius when he sees it and to know, to his pain, that he doesn't have it.
As a politician he knows what kind of civic art he must get from the artist, but as a man he knows that what she's going to produce will be infinitely better even though he will have to reject it and punish her. McInnerny makes what could be a foolish comic figure into a character of depth and sensitivity, insuring that the debate and the play are not one-sided.
There's solid support from Jamie Ballard as Galactia's lover and competing (and inferior) artist, William Chubb as a Cardinal who is what the Doge would be without the qualities Barker and McInnerny give him, and Phoebe Nicholls as a sympathetic but practical art critic.
Barker interestingly fiddles with time in the play, giving the characters moments of more twentieth- than sixteenth-century sensibility and introducing anachronistic figures like that female art critic, and director Tom Cairns and designer Hildegard Bechtler build on this with sets and costumes that deliberately wander between Renaissance, modern and something in between.
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