No one would deny that theatre and painting, for example, are two distinct art forms, or video and opera, but to suggest that these pairings cannot complement each other to startling effect is simply unimaginative.
Take the recent Cambridge production of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, which saw the play staged in a church adorned with dramatic and arresting paintings by former Christ’s College artist-in-residence Tom de Freston, an original and imaginative venture which provoked the right sort of creative buzz. The chaps involved in this production were not, however, the only ones to fuse art and theatre in Doctor Faustus. Cambridge alumnus and acclaimed theatre director Rupert Goold renovated the play in 2006 by interspersing Marlowe’s text with scenes of the Chapman Brothers’ infamous defacing of Goya’s Disasters of War, creating a fascinating marriage between Renaissance theatre and Brit Art.
Rupert Goold is one of the nation’s most successful theatre directors, and one of the most exciting. Critics veer between loving and loathing his productions, but, regardless of taste, it would be difficult to deny the imaginativeness of them. It is just this quality which has seen him rise from a theatre in Northampton to garner prestigious awards, West End sell-out shows, and an artistic directorship at the RSC. During a recent visit to Cambridge he spoke to me about his English National Opera production of Puccini’s Turandot (which includes the famous aria ‘Nessun Dorma’), a production which again exhibited the exciting crossover between theatre and contemporary art. It was bold, thrilling, and quite the visual spectacle. The opera is set in China’s Imperial City in “legendary times”… Goold’s take was to set the action in China Town, the three acts played out in the dining hall, outdoor staircase, and kitchen of a Chinese restaurant.
The lavish design of the production took direct inspiration from works unrelated to opera per se; making imaginative use of those works’ accumulated ‘halos’ of concept, theme, and criticism to add to the opera’s already rich history. The specific works Goold picked up on were Zhang Dali’s evocative hanging bodies in Chinese Offspring (at the Saatchi Gallery 2003-5), a Luo Brothers’ piece from New York, Untitled, which fused contemporary consumerist advertising with traditional gimmicky oriental art, and Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God (his 2007 diamond-encrusted platinum skull with human teeth), all of which added spectacularly to the visual design of the piece as well as creating further levels of commentary on the opera’s themes. Chorus members were dressed as a myriad of oddities, including Elvis impersonators and Primark victims as well as an overt reference to popular culture in the depiction of Turandot as a samurai-wielding bride, à la Kill Bill – and indeed Tarantino himself loves to reference popular culture (the levels of ‘meta-‘ deepen…). As renowned Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington claimed in the wake of the production’s critical slating, “Opera and theatre no longer exist in separate boxes; the real truth is that many of the best directors…commute easily between the two forms”.
So can Cambridge theatre provide the boundary-breaking excitement we should crave? Well, I’m directing a new play called She’s Not There, opening next week. The plot follows the story of the sublime but devilishly wayward Renaissance painter Fra Filippo Lippi. Tom de Freston is again collaborating with the world of theatre, contributing some of his most striking and evocative pieces: expect to see the Corpus Playroom transformed. With this visual feast of stunning artwork combined with fresh performances we hope to create a truly thrilling theatrical experience. Of course I’m biased – I’m the director, but such is my interest in the fusion of art forms that what could be a straightforwardly biographical narrative of a fifteenth-century painter may become something true both to the man and to the audience.
Concepts of borrowing and interpretation in art are almost inseparably intermingled. Originality does not exist because something is completely new but because it is a fresh reworking or lateral perspective on things which have been around forever. De Freston describes himself as a contemporary History Painter, presenting dramatic scenes of figures in tension, and drawing from traditions such as the French Academy and the Italian Renaissance. Take, for example, his recent Expulsion Expulsion (pictured). The story of Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden is given an abstract twist, while de Freston juxtaposes the work of Masaccio and Michelangelo, their two representations of the original couple’s expulsion both quoted in this four-figured piece. The Masaccio depiction adorns the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, the fresco cycle of which was, incidentally, completed by Filippino Lippi, Filippo’s illegitimate son, a link which opens up further relevancies to a play about confinement and circularity.
Art is not the only exciting collaboration with current Cambridge theatre. The Miscellaneous (theatre?) Festival next week is bound to offer a wealth of innovative pieces, while the intriguing multimedia Three Tales by Steve Reich and Beryl Korot at the ADC a couple of weeks ago combined a live onstage orchestra with film and singers in a ‘video-opera’ exploration of developments in modern technology: excitingly different. The run was accompanied by talks and extensive programme articles – a welcome attention to detail. The collaboration of art forms and the open-mindedness to think outside of often arbitrary categorisations is essential in creating something which is theatrically alive: opera, just like straight theatre, and indeed any art form, thrives on imaginative direction.
In an age obsessed with the modern and the cutting edge, we ought instead to embrace the tensions between old and new, past and present. Picasso stole African artefacts to inspire his paintings; Alexander Pope rewrote Shakespeare; Shakespeare butchered history and other people’s writings; someone built a glass pyramid in front of The Louvre, while someone else built a huge glass phallus in view of St Paul’s Cathedral. It’s a fine line between what is iconic and what is iconoclastic, indeed a matter almost entirely of opinion; Goold’s response: “Why spend time tinkering about with a work of genius? Because it is a work of genius”.
She’s Not There by Patrick Garety, featuring the art of Tom de Freston opens Tuesday 9th March at the Corpus Playroom
The Miscellaneous (theatre?) Festival opens on Wednesday 10th March in the Judith E. Wilson Drama Studio