A BETTER ARTIST THAN YOU
SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION, May 2014
For those unfamiliar with Howard Barker’s work, it’s an unusual blend of narrative and image theatre into a stricture of social commentary and investigation. It’s not simply plotline-with-tidy-resolution to keep us in attendance until home-time. That is not the nature of his work. There is a story, and stakes are raised, and characters are tested – to be sure, but any ensemble presenting will be met with the severest of inclined text, each level providing steep challenges; layering complexity of language, subtlety in characterisation, clarity of metaphor, boldness of costume and design, fluidity of composition, philosophical reach, truth-seeking, wickedness in humour… The kinds of things one expects from a powerful night at the theatre.
On a technical level – these are the multiple competing texts found in theatre which make the form so compelling for artist and audience alike. A three-dimensional canvas of word, sound, voice, music, gesture and image to shift beneath such tectonic elements as plot, setting or character. The story is a cracker, but the challenge of the artistry is found in the underlying tensions in form, the convex mirrors enable its imagery to take on a kind of megalithic cultural significance. Objects may seem larger than they appear. A great play such as this is not merely a set of events, or a set of characters, or even a set of ideas; it is a blueprint for a visual and aural and verbal assault on the mind and soul of its audience.
To say “this is a good play” or “it is well done” is not enough. To say “I could have been better” is just shallow (disclaimer: one should announce when one auditioned for the play at hand, but was refused! Alas). Let us be clear – quibbling about issues of performance style, vocal technique or lighting design will be on the agenda for some, but amount to a selfish vindication of the critic’s role. We will not flatter the artist with a false praise either, but admire their ambition. There are difficulties in a play as complex as this. They can be overcome. The ensemble, on the night I saw the play, are still rising to the challenges of the language. It is a muscular script and demands slavish attention to enunciation, tone, rhythm, and detail. Nothing less will suffice or it will beat you down like a Greco-Roman wrestler with a grudge. Certain scenes are spectacular in delivery, others are still finding their depth and lustre but I have no doubt this will happen – such is the commitment of the cast. Let us not dwell but instead focus on a far more resonant concept – that of value.
“Value” is not an idea to throw around lightly in the arts – despite publicist’s best intentions it is not a well-priced ticket or the discounted laksa-and-a-show (for which the Old Fitzroy is famous) – we must abandon such pettiness (however delicious and affordable) when we speak of such things. Value for audiences is found simply because the art is there. We may value some art higher than others, we may see a particular work as representing a set-of-values and thus pass a moral or aesthetic judgement on it. Lord knows there’s plenty of that going on. But these amount to “I am a better artist” or “he does not occupy a prominent enough position” (and so on) precisely the point that Barker is attending; to engage with art one must seek value outside the frame as well. It is there, it is poetic, therefore it has value.
To extrapolate: the painting at the centre of the drama, one single frame, contains multitudes of values for its audience. It has value as a thing of beauty, demonstrating mastery of technique, and years of training one must undertake in the discipline. It has value as an historical document, capturing the moments of the battle it depicts, the pain and suffering of war. And it has value as a unique object, an individual expression of the artist, unlike any other.
That it is also imperfect does not matter. That it does not satisfy all the requirements for its entire audience does not reduce its value. If anything, the opposite, it inspires discussion, philosophy, it makes us weep or tingle as it dials into new paradigms. Imperfection is in fact art’s defining grace.
The controversy surrounding the events of the play are apparent when these values compete for prominence. Each character places a different weight on different aspects of the work, to the point where the artist is literally sidelined and we are left with a kind of clinical dissection of meaning, of the art-as-social-construct. Such as it is with an audience of fifty, at an opening night, with fifty sets of competing evaluations reflecting fifty people’s reaction to a particularly complex set of ideas and representations thereof. Look Further. In the face of a political evisceration of public funds for Creative Industry (see last Tuesday’s Federal Budget) – where is the independent, self-funded theatre sector on the scale of things-we-think-are-important?
Do we value something more or less when we know it is run by volunteers or those who are paid to be there?
Art is in fact so influential that political power will perpetually attempt to control and dominate its will. Yesterday’s Doge of Venice is today’s Board of Directors or Australia Council, slaving for their corporate sponsor masters, ensuring ______ is prominent enough in the frame, that ______’s friend gets a particular role. This is nothing new, the corrupt influence of the powerful over the artist has peppered history, even shaped it. Let us be adult about it. Even critics become notable because they are favoured by certain companies, reputations gather reputations and we celebrate fame while our most revolutionary talents die starving, unknown, ignored.
Through the annals of time we have become so obsessed with the notion of artist-as-philosopher-shaman we have forgone much of the value of the art. We are less concerned with the art than we are the personality behind it and as such the Value of art has suffered. Witness shrinking coverage in mainstream press. Witness increasing “profile” type coverage consistently replacing in depth discussion of context. Audiences will turn up to see a play purely on the basis that ______ is in it, and this is a perfectly acceptable corporate strategy to engage a significant box-office return.
PLAYS WILL HAVE LINES OR SCENES CUT BECAUSE THEY MAY BE OFFENSIVE TO THE POLITICIANS OF THE DAY.
Witness the Australia Day fiasco at the QTC just a few months back.
This is not Moliere vs The Catholic Church in 1664.
This is not Diego Rivera vs the City of New York in 1933.
This is Australia 2014.
And art is still being consistently devalued to the point of simplicity, a transactional tool for profit. An apolitical distraction for the masses. But as the play aptly demonstrates, nothing could be further from the truth.
If you have any doubt about this please engage with the discussion below. But first, go and see this play. It’s a brutal, sexy, and confrontational mud-wrestle between art and language, with some of the most visceral and funny dialogue on offer. It’s not perfect, but who cares, it’s a rare chance to see and hear one of the great moderns in flight from one hell of a cast and as a great man once said: “the supreme vice is shallowness. Everything realised is right.”
SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION by Howard Barker
presented by Tooth And Sinew and SITCO
directed by Richard Hilliar, featuring Lynden Jones, Mark Lee, Peter Maple, Brendan Miles, Lucy Miller, Katherine Shearer, Jeremy Waters and Nicole Wineberg. Playing until May 31st at The Old Fitzroy Hotel
The 1999 film Cradle Will Rock directed by Tim Robbins explores the history of art and political censorship, including a fictional account of the Musical of the Same Name and the aforementioned Diego Rivera scandal in the City of New York.
See also PEN International http://pen.org.au/ an organisation dedicated to freedom of expression and which lobbies for the release of imprisoned writers and artists worldwide.
Entry filed under: Sydney THEATRE.