Scene: Sixteenth-century Venice. A glowing white cube descends from a vertiginous height containing a narrator type chappie (Gerrard McArthur) pretentiously called The Sketchbook (no, us neither). Or should white cube be White Cube? Scenes from an Execution is about art. Ah! Penny just dropped!
Obscene?: Artist Galactia (Fiona Shaw on fine form) is semi-naked sketching her naked younger lover and duplicitously compromising fellow-artist Carpeta (Jamie Ballard - also good). She’s a supremely talented artist (he’s not) and sensualist with a bit of a gobby mouth (Battleaxe Galactia?). They thrash about on a rock together. We’re later told she’s pretty nifty with her tongue. Carpeta seems to confirm this.
Scenes from an Exhibitionist: Buckingham Palace has been lit up with pink lights. Coronation Street is doing another breast cancer storyline. It is Breast Cancer Action Month so quite fitting that Fiona’s breasts are now fully exposed. Phil doesn’t remember Glenda Jackson exposing hers when he saw her create the role at the Almeida in 1990. But then he doesn’t ever remember her not exposing her puppies on film so perhaps he didn’t notice. Better out than in. Good to get the air to them we say.
Scenes: A series of them as Fi sketches various models for her massive canvas – The Battle of Lepanto – she’s been commissioned to paint by the Doge.
Freak scene: One of her models – Prodo (Jay Simpson) – was massively injured in battle, so arrives – as you do – with an arrow sticking out of his head, his trick is to make it twitch when he thinks. His second party piece is to reveal his exposed intestines which he cradles like a newly-born baby. Fi chats endlessly, it’s a wonder she ever gets any work done.
Arrives on the scene: Fi meets Doge Urgentino played – with a good mix of comedy and the sinister rather well – by Tim McInnerny but looks like Dara Ó Briain painted by El Greco. Fi’s in trouble. She’s opted to depict the brutality rather than the nobility of war. Oops. Didn’t she read her brief?
Mise-en-scène: Eloquently stark settings by Hildegard Bechtler. She obviously understood her brief.
Art scene: Fi meets an art critic Rivera (Phoebe Nicholls). Rivera? Is this a reference to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera? There’s also a character called Lasagna (Lucas Hare). Playwright Howard Barker‘s having a laugh isn’t he? If it sounds dreary, it’s not. It is often quite funny and – slightly disappointingly – not the turkey early reports suggested.
Scene of the crime: Fi faces a sort of trial for not compromising her art. Is she trying to win her jury over by flashing her bap again? Have a word with wardrobe Fiona. Is Nina Conti working it from behind like one of her naughty puppets? The jury aren’t impressed. She’s going down and this time not on Carpeta.
Scenery: Fiona’s crosses the Bridge of Sighs to her cell but the lighting is very gloomy so hard to tell if she’s walking her puppies again. She thrashes about and tries to make herself comfortable in the straw and hacks off the other inmates. The backdrop behind rises revealing the Doge, a stagehand and some broken staging at the base of the gantry at the front of the stage. Stagehand announces there’s a problem which they’re trying to fix. Preview, blah, blah, but it’s still thrilling.
Don’t make a scene: Everyone’s switching on their phones. Time passes. More time. Audience start chatting among themselves, even to complete strangers. It’s the spirit of London 2012 all over again.
Seen and not heard: No noise of banging from behind the safety curtain to suggest there’s any fixing going on. Eventually and on cue the banging starts as a man appears and announces we should be getting going again soon but there’s time to visit the powder room and “We’ve found a way to continue.” What does this mean? Is the theme of artistic compromise going to be paralleled by us all decamping to the foyer to watch the final 20 minutes performed there? Is Simon Russell Beale going to come on and explain the rest of the story while the cast go down the pub?
Scene-stealer: 25 minutes later and the play resumes – in the auditorium – to great applause. Director Tom Cairns should keep the glitch in. This is outclassing the Act 1 curtain in Volcano.
Unseen: So no refund then. But then Phil’s still waiting for a refund for his cancelled Count of Monte Cristo tickets. No sign of it yet unless he’s missed it. Unlikely with his beady eye on housekeeping economics.
Scene from an exhibition: SPOILER ALERT. The painting goes on display and makes quite a splash at the opening. Fi is wearing a nice frock and is now fully covered. So she does compromise in the end then.