In the third act of her career, Jennifer Steyn is proving to be one of South Africa’s grand dames. Steyn leads the cast, directly off the back of double Fleur du Cap award nominations for best actress for A Doll’s House and The Inconvenience of Wings (for which she won the much coveted award).
This Howard Barker play takes place in 15th century Venice, where the artist Galactia has been commissioned by the state to paint the Battle of Lepanto. While she is intent on painting ‘the truth’ – that is, the violence of battle – the Catholic Church requires a painting that is a celebration of victory. A power battle between the artist and the patrons ensues.
Steyn is captivating as Galactia. She plays an artist who is passionate, moved, inspired, aware, dramatic, intense, self-important, self-involved and melodramatic. She is everything we want our artists to be, taking on the role of society’s unconscious so that we don’t have to. Yet sometimes, like nightmares, the subconscious bubbles up to the surface, and she creates a painting that is too real to face.
Employing the Romantic myth of the artist, Steyn’s defining traits as Galactia are that of a stereotypical genius who is either mentally ill or obsessed. Although usually the myth of the artist refers to a man, Barker positions her as a woman, and for this her sexuality is called into question – both by herself and others, who accuse her of promiscuity.
What tips Steyn’s performance from good to brilliant is her ability to embody the role entirely. Even in the way she holds her paintbrush or applies paint to the canvas, the nuance of her gestures seems remarkably practiced, as if these movements have long been committed to muscle memory.
Clare Stopford directs the play for a second time, her first being in 1994 when great changes were sweeping the country. Two decades on, and the power of the state is once again being called into question. Graham Hopkins reprises his role as the Doge of Venice, and he proves to be a delightful and generous supporting actor as he portrays a powerful man who must consult the critic, untrusting of his own opinion of art.
Elizabeth Akudugu is striking in the role of the critic Rivera. On stage with Steyn, she holds her ground firmly against Galactia’s opposition of beliefs. But even when Rivera serves the artist, Galactia demeans and misunderstands her, stating: “The critic is afraid of the artist and envies her power. She is ashamed of what she secretly believes to be an inferior gift, that of exposition. So instead of serving the artist, she humiliates her.”
Elements of art history are evident in the set design. Patrick Curtis’ work at times resembles a canvas or sketchbook, complete with perspective lines. In each of the 20 short scenes that constitute the play, it’s clear that composition is of great importance.
In the original script, the sketchbook is a character on its own. Though it must have been a challenge to conceptualise bringing it to life on a stage, Stopford ingeniously places the actors at the perimeter, where they recite lines from the sketchbook. Here they are suspended in animation, while a battery-operated torch shines a single, out-of-place light at them. The sketchbook describes the events on stage in the tone of a modernist art history text book, analysing the scene into form, line, composition, shape, light, and colour.
If any possible improvement could be made to this otherwise incredible production, I’d have liked Stopford to have gone further in defining the sketchbook as a role in itself. Audience members who are not familiar with the script may not realise that these lines are not simply a narration, but the actual words of the sketchbook. The sketchbook is not just in the position of relating what has been drawn on its own pages, but is omniscient, at times describing the completed painting of the battle in the future, as if it were a great painting – such as Picasso’s Guernica – which is studied by scholars of the subject.
With our country’s political climate being as tumultuous as it is, it would be almost impossible for South Africans to watch this production without considering politics. Galactia is transgressive, shedding light on what we do not wish to see. This is not just a play about the artist striving to portray the truth, and it’s not just about art. Scenes from an Execution is a play about power.
Scenes from an Execution is on at the Baxter Theatre until 22 April 2017.