When I interviewed the director Sir Peter Hall recently, he mentioned that when he was preparing the British premiere of Beckett's Waiting for Godot in 1955, Peter Brook suggested that he consider Francis Bacon as set designer. Although Bacon had established an international reputation with his 'screaming pope' paintings, Hall had never heard of him. They met for a drink, and it immediately became clear that the painter had no interest in theatre, and especially in collaboration. The prospect of what Hall wryly described as 'screaming tramps in a tree' swiftly receded.
It may be just as well, though I've still never seen a production of Godot that matches the intensity of my imaginings, and reverent visuals are part of the problem. Catching Tate Britain's Bacon retrospective just before it closed at the weekend, I edged through the crowded rooms with possible Godots in mind. Beckett and Bacon, two great artists of mid-century despair, might seem a perfect match, but the exhibition made me wonder. The quality of despair in each is quite distinct: Bacon's is savage, more insistent that humanity is trapped in animalistic flesh.
Both artists are drawn to the still air of interiors (Godot, like Happy Days, is a rare Beckett play set in a landscape), and there's certainly something theatrical about these canvases: Bacon's figures are overtly caged, even staged, trapped behind a kind of experimental proscenium. Later works, especially around the time of his lover's suicide in 1971, place figures beside ink-black doorways, hovering on the verge of extinction. Fleshy puddles of paint gather at their feet, as if the body is seeping away. Spectatorship and its queasy relation to suffering is a particularly disturbing element of Bacon's crucifixion triptychs, where men in homburgs slouch at the sidelines, gazing dispassionately at the passion.
The form is highly composed, as it must be to contain such eviscerated subjects - the stretched tendons, the exposed spines, the mouths hissing through death-rattle gnashers. Livid swashes of colour carry the pictures, especially Bacon's trademark orange-red. Although the Godot was an idea quickly abandoned, it's interesting to see his works inspired by Aeschylus' Oresteia (1981). You wouldn't use them as a backdrop, but they are powerful responses to the tragedies: the bodies hacked about, rent open, reduced to scraps of limb and torso around a deep red throne.
The crossover between visual artists and the stage is surprisingly attenuated. Mostly, it centres on Diaghilev's pioneering and publicity-magnet commissions for his Ballets Russes, scooping up Picasso, Chagall, Goncharova, Matisse. Christopher Wheeldon has discussed plans to follow in the impresario's footsteps with his own Morphoses company, and last year, Wayne McGregor collaborated with artist Julian Opie on the Royal Ballet's Infra. As theatre becomes increasingly interested in creating an environment for work rather than presenting a static picture, you can imagine further collaborations in which the visual artist is neither guest star nor supporting player but a fully integrated partner in the production. Who would you like to see move from gallery to stage?
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