Screaming tramps

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?

January 6, 2009 11:08 AM | | Comments (2) |


Good calls all, Andrew, thanks for these. Absolutely agree with you about Kapoor's set for in-i. Stark in form, yes, but so brilliantly and emotionally lit by Michael Hulls, with colours so deep you could drown in them - saffron, violet, bruised and broken-hearted rose.

Louise Bourgeois' installations are highly theatrical - in fact, given the insistent presence of her family history, they are almost psychodramas in their own right. But Fiona Shaw directed a fascinating production of GB Shaw's Widower's Houses at the National Theatre some years ago which had a set very much influenced by Bourgeois, and dealt with similarly uncomfortable family relations.

Like Cardiff, Heiner Goebbels creates and designs very performative installations. Must seek out Rego's Pillowman paintings - that psychologically murky, fabular territory is very much hers. Though she's also done a series based on Fantasia - lumpy, unhappy, truculent women cast as the ostriches and hippos - so I think there's definitely a theatrical sensibility there.

Elsewhere, the sculptor Anthony Gormley's dance pieces with Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (Zero Degrees, Sutra) have been exceptionally imaginative in their allusive calm,but the living painter who has most enthusiastically crossed over into theatre is perhaps David Hockney - in paticular, some vibrantly colourful opera sets (except for his rigorously cross-hatched b&w Rake's Progress). Perhaps it's the willingness to collaborate - and, inevitably, compromise - that's the issue for many artists? Bacon clearly wasn't having any truck with the idea, and presumably if you're used to controlling the field of vision, it may be difficult to admit colleagues with other considerations (aesthetic or pragmatic)?

Anish Kapoor's set for the Akram Khan/Juliette Binoche collaboration In-I was similarly interesting, if a little on the stark side. If Louise Bourgeois hasn't already, I think she could be brilliant. Also, the Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller installations which were shown at the Edinburgh Fruitmarket Gallery this summer were almost pieces of theatre already in their own right, but would also have work brilliantly as a place to put performers.

On a similar vein, I was surprised and thrilled to learn a couple of years ago that Paula Rego had been inspired enough by Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman to do a series of paintings of scenes from the piece. Wasn't as much a fan of the paintings, but it was still great to know there were some artists who still liked theatre.

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This page contains a single entry by Performance Monkey published on January 6, 2009 11:08 AM.

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