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 Stroppy member of the awkward squad: Fiona Shaw as Galactia in "Scenes from an Execution" 

As the newly appointed head of Arts Council England, Sir Peter Bazalgette might like a taste of what he is in for. Before he starts deciding whether an all-male dance troupe in Salford is worth funding at the expense of continuing Kabuki drama in Suffolk, let me recommend a night out at Howard Barker's Scenes from an Execution at the National Theatre. The play turns on an arts-funding row in 16th-century Venice, with the competing demands of a dodgy Doge (Tim McInnerny), who wants great art but no trouble with it, and Galactia (Fiona Shaw), a stroppy female painter who is nothing but trouble.

Barker wrote Scenes from an Execution after the Falklands war, in case the nation so far forget itself as to feel victorious. He embraces the "theatre of catastrophe" which harrows and challenges the audience. And he has said he is uncomfortable (I suspect he is rarely anything else) about his play being performed at the dear old National, lest we enjoy it too much in an institutionally important theatre.

Fortunately, Ms Shaw disregards the posturing and has a whale of a time with the role of an awkward-squad woman who enjoys sex and painting. She attends in a desultory way to Carpeta (Jamie Ballard), her young and less talented artist lover, but like most of the creative solipsists who beg for Arts Council funds, she can't much be bothered with human beings unless she is using them for her own creative purposes.

At one point we wince when she hires a stray Albanian as a model (being unable to get a Turk for ready money) and then ignores her daughter's respectable horror as the chap gets a little too excited at the sight of a Venetian lovely.

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