Influential cult playwright Howard Barker has been grumbling for years that the National Theatre never stages his work, often before launching into a diatribe about how he doesn't think theatre should be an enjoyable experience.
In the event, though, the most difficult thing about director Tom Cairns's breaking of Barker's NT duck was the set: on press night it malfunctioned during a scene change, leaving star Fiona Shaw stranded and giggling.
Unfortunate, but not enough to take the shine off this riveting, accessible revival of Barker's 1990 play. Shaw plays Galactia, a woman artist in sixteenth-century Venice who is commissioned by the Doge (Tim McInnerny) to create an enormous painting depicting the Venetians' bloody triumph over the Ottoman Empire in the recent Battle of Lepanto. What she paints, however, is not the expected celebration but a horrific mirror to the carnage caused.
Shambling round in just a faintly obscene smock, Shaw is wonderful as a free spirit beginning to fray at the edges. Superficially she is having a whale of a time winding up Venice's pompous elite. But what Shaw conveys so brilliantly is the strain Galactia's glibly oppositional stance is putting on her, personally but moreover professionally – the titanic effort of creating the painting takes a palpable psychological toll.
Peopled by grotesque minor characters and with a set that (when functional) resembles a monolithic empty art gallery, there is a nightmarish edge to proceedings. But ultimately 'Scenes…' is a rousing defence of the role of the outsider artist in society, a plea for the right to be able to create art that disturbs.
Clearly Barker was writing about his own work, but at the same time the play is not itself wilfully difficult, with Galactia almost uniquely sympathetic amongst his protagonists. And it's also often very funny, particularly when depicting the convoluted machinations of the Venetian court, expertly presided over by old comic hand McInnerny as a ruler trapped between his genuine love of art and his awareness of what is appropriate for Venetian society.
After all these years it turns out Barker's bark was worse than his bite. But – thanks to a brilliant cast – 'Scenes from an Execution' still sinks its teeth in.