When the variations in which each element

When assuming the role of dramaturg for the
production of Howard Barker’s Scenes from an Execution (1989), I set
myself one preliminary objective: to explore the variations in which each
element of the production could be enhanced by meticulous research and
analyzation. As Andy Lavender states in his book, Hamlet in Pieces, “It
is easy to mystify theatre-making, assuming that the writer and/or director is
a genius.” 1 Needless to say, Lavender is right. We can
easily see a play with both experiential and metaphysical components and
glorify its maker – ultimately taking the text at face value and utilizing the obvious
to determine our motives. But once Scenes was moved beneath a knife and
the attention of the creative team lay purely within the textual operation and
not within the methods designed by Barker, a genuine interpretation surfaces.
Therefore, for our production, only two distinctive things mattered: 1) Words
must always be given precedence and 2) Character interpretation determined the
visual spectacle. Both were the subject of extensive and collaborative
discussions and equally persuaded the outcome of our final performance. Neither
had forged its way into the most prominent aspect of the production, rather the
revision and progressing development of each expanded the understanding of the
other.

Words
Must Always Be Given Precedence:

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Found in The Wrestling School’s mission statement
is the theory that “the method for playing Barker’s texts has not yet been
properly realized.” 2 It seems, due to Barker’s ever-changing
style and continual development as a playwright, this method may never reach a
final realization. With this in mind, it was apparent for our production that
to 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 on
insight we found in the text. As Charles Lambs reasons, “most of Barker’s plays
are set in catastrophic circumstances either immediately before or immediately
after a fairly massive social breakdown.” 4 This quote was enticing – if the
understanding of Barkerian performance was continuously expanding, what if we
purged the idea of a story happening directly after or before catastrophe and
instead placed it hundreds of years later while simultaneously maintaining a
character’s perception of waiting for a massive social breakdown to
happen? Why not let the journey leading up to the fate of Galactia’s ‘Battle of
Lepanto’ be in the hands of someone else? The ‘textual surgery’ then began as
we scrapped all research of previous performances, such as The National Theatre’s
production in 2012, and looked at whose language we felt determined the course
of the narrative.

As an adaptation of the play began, difficulty
resided in deciding who was the most reliable character. Initially, the
Sketchbook seemed like an obvious choice. This character’s narrative authority
in which he/she introduced scenes and made comments about the painting neither
the characters nor the audience had yet to witness made them an excellent
candidate for workshopping. But after some debate it came to an agreement that Sketchbook
spoke like a historian rather than from first-hand experience. And although it
was an interesting approach to have the story told by Galactia’s own work, it
seemed more fitting to let the possession of Sketchbook be in the hands of a future
story-teller whose perception of the past has been manipulated by a previous
character. Therefore, Galactia, became the next choice as she dominated the
majority of the scenes in lines and presence, but apparently spoke to no one
but herself. Her responses to those around her only further inflated herself
and her self-definitive mission. Her monologues were obsessive theoretical
queries about justice, duty, and art in paused moments of reflection as if
everything stopped around her when she no longer wanted to pay attention. We
decided to take reference from Barker’s author’s note in Terrible Mouth:

…the artist, for whom imagination is a substitute
for lived life, experiences the ambiguities of watching …he finds himself a
collaborator, the pencil lending him permission, absolution, the sufficient distance
to both love more, and suffer more, than other men’5

We
then were able to justify that even the characters in the story were mere
perceptions made by the artist to define her journey. Galactia ‘finds herself
a collaborator’ to the lives of those around her and exploits this belief to
present her injustice in any way she feels fitting. This notion is further
argued by dramatic critic Karoline Gritzner as she states that “in Barker’s
recent work the artist protagonists are no longer painters but poets,” and the
notion of suffering becomes a “central preoccupation.” 6

Barker has reworked the dramatic form by
making Galactia an idiosyncratic symbol of her own metaphysical experience
through the manifestation of her artwork. The author has further stated in an
interview with The Guardian that he does not want Galactia portrayed as
a ‘sympathetic’ character not only in her own ways but also that she does not
deserve sympathy as well, however, if we are to believe that this story comes
from how Galactia would like to be portrayed she would ultimately depict the
characters around her that further emphasized her reasoning. In a way Galactia
is an advocate for art and in Scenes there is a transition from a
concern with art’s significance in social change to what powers are diminishing
a specific art’s capabilities. Hence why we found it imperative to seek our own
advocacy in presenting the play from her position.

Character
Interpretation Determines the Visual Spectacle.

The previous section’s analysis of what
lead up to the script’s final product was so detailed because it is in this
adaptation that laid the basis for all further conceptualizations of the
production, as well as all challenges we then came to face. Once the agreement
that the entire play would be an account of Galactia’s recollection, the set
then needed to act as a creative device which only served what the plot
intended. Therefore, the design was exactly precise and referential to how
Galactia remembers it focusing solely on what was required to move the scene
from one to the next. In a way her stage became a place of identity where blank
areas existed to demonstrate the less purposeful elements of her memory. For
example, most canvas’ that were piled on stage were blank, but unwrapped. This
was intentional to provide further emphasis of the work she was currently
completing, ‘The Battle of Lepanto,’ but also provided a sense of activity and
busyness which heightened Galactia’s certainty of her importance. The red
colour pattern plastered the floors and was the only shade Galactia used to
paint further stressing the scheme used in her painting of the battle.

Although the painted memory comes forth
mainly in the set design, we also intended for characters to participate in
this pictorial recollection to enhance Galactia’s inability to separate art
with reality. (See below portrayal of ‘Carpeta’ by John Ireland taken by
Margaret Smith). Early on we decided that each character would be painted in
relation to the artist’s view of them.  Much
like in her painting of ‘The Battle of Lepanto’ in which she was required to
paint men she would never meet, she had to realistically portray their
expressions through their face and body, to ensure that their place in the
painting’s narrative corresponded with the message she was endeavouring to
convey.  Mainly challenges were found in
determining the colours and patterns that would define these characters as we
were hesitant to choose to hastily and without developing a rich understanding
of that character and how Galactia perceived them. Eventually, after individual
research, Hannah Ghotbi-Ravandi and I sat down for a few hours and discussed
the possibilities that each character could have to further emphasize their
defining qualities. Upon further reflection, we praised our collaborative
outlook on the performance, but did not involve the actors we commissioned to
develop what they thought defined their characters.

However, looking back, I found the most
dissatisfaction with our audience’s involvement. I was fascinated with
expelling in our production the type of theatre that feels like leisured tourism.
I hold a very unpopular opinion that musical theatre is merely escapist
entertainment for the masses. You travel to New York City or London and you
feel this incessant requirement to find yourself on Broadway or West End. You
buy tickets to The Book of Mormon or Lion King, sitting down in
your seats, you’re hyperactively aware and expectant of a ‘good show.’ With
this in the back of my mind, I advocated for the idea of placing the audience
seats in spots that were visually obscured by either a set piece or lighting. I
wanted this production to feel almost stumbled upon.  For that reason, the way that the script was
edited, it was important that determining character motives would be nearly
impossible (as their speech and tone was dictated solely by what assisted in
presenting Galactia as a victim) and vocal direction encouraged normal speaking
voices and whispers. We really wanted to push the idea of the audience acting
as eavesdroppers rather than invited spectators. I wanted the audience to miss
lines and therefore have to speculate what the character’s may have said or
have been thinking about. The viewers cannot ask questions and the actors will
not be able to answer even if they did. Our audience must be forced to gain
from this event that there’s a backstory to each character, a mystery if you
will, something they may never know. However, upon reflection the idea I feel
had potential was ultimately underdeveloped and lacked support unanimously from
our creative team. I’m satisfied with the attempt we made which I feel did
insert levels of anxiety and frustration from both our cast and audience
members, but do think in further productions needs to be revised. I would like
instead for an audience to be immersed within the set rather than on the edge
of two lengths of the stage. Our first attempt did not expel this entire notion
of theatrical tourism as the audience still knew where to sit and how to behave
in the presence of an ongoing performance.

The exaggeration and intense themes of
Howard Barker’s work are necessary for allowing the audience to be open-minded
to the experience. In reality, when we face true sorrow and happiness, we
overemphasize its impact on us to justify its means. For Galactia this is no
different and she expresses her motives through her art in both physical pieces
and through speech. For Barker, language in a way is the basic structure for
one’s progression. Exemplified in our creation of Galactia, our purpose began
with the desire to create a story that in one way justified the state and in
other ways justified the artist’s strive for purpose. However, after
consideration it was apparent that what made Barker’s work relevant was not his
dutiful perception of every human want, but his concentration on how one person
can have a myriad. Those two features, which my dramaturgy concentrated on,
accounted for each aspect of the productions space, performer, and visual image
producing a final product that was entirely our own making.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1Andy
Lavender, ‘The Play without the Play’ in
Hamlet in Pieces: Shakespeare Reworked: Peter Brook, Robert Lepage,
Robert Wilson, (London, Nick Hern Books, 2001), pp. 3-44 (p. 9)

2
Howard Barker, press release titled Some Notes Towards a Change of Method in
Performance and Text, dated 18 December 1986.

3 James
Reynolds, ‘Unearthly powers of invention: speech, report and repetition in
recent Wrestling School productions’ in Howard Barker’s Art of Theatre,
(Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2013), pp. 28-37 (p. 30)

4
Charles Lamb, Howard Barker’s Theatre of Seduction, (London: Routledge,
1997) p. 43

5 Howard
Barker, ‘Barker on Terrible Mouth’ in Terrible Mouth, (London:
Universal Edition, 1992) p. 3

6
Karoline Gritzner, ‘Poetry and intensification in Howard Barker’s theatre of
plethora’ in Studies in Theatre and Performance, 32.3, 2012, pp. 337-45
(p. 338)