4 March 2015
London is a city of historical and architectural layers, and Vaults 2015 has in the last three weeks made lively use once again of one of the best hidden venues for theatre in the centre of town – the maze of arches and tunnels under Waterloo Station. It is a dramatic, ‘Alice-in-Gotham-City’ moment in itself when you descend an anonymous staircase to find yourself in a graffiti-covered Victorian tunnel, with Banksy wannabes hard at work overlaying the work of the day before; before diving into what appears to be hole in the wall, but which is in fact the entrance to a buzzing hub of flexible performance and exhibition and hospitality spaces.
For the performance of Hellscreen we were ushered into an arched brick vault shaped and coloured like a dark ginger loaf and filled with a mass of technical apparatus that reminded me of the sinister disused warehouse that features in The Ipcress File. We received a stool each from the chorus, already acting in character to break down the fourth wall, and arranged ourselves around a traverse stage, book-ended with curtains of perspex flaps. In the next eighty minutes we were drawn into a searing meditation on the social function and boundaries of art, the malign and benign roles of patrons and critics, and the potential in all audiences for creeping voyeurism and passive acceptance of the intolerable.
Hellscreen has its point of departure in a classic Japanese short story by Akutagawa published as long ago as 1918. In the original a great painter is employed by his patron to create a screen depicting the Buddhist vision of Hell. He finds that he can only paint what he has not experienced in life by torturing his apprentices ever more cruelly. Alongside this theme stands a competition between patron and painter for the affections of the painter’s beloved daughter, before the two plot lines converge fatally leaving the daughter dead in one final act of artistic overreach, the painter taking his own life, and only the completed screen of horrors remaining.
Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and Rachel Parish transfer the core thematic and psychological matrix of the story very successfully into the framework of the modern art world and an exploration of its cult of excess. Frank Holt (Jonny Woo) is a contemporary artist who seeks to shock but seems to have reached his boundaries and lost his audience. He falls back on his relationship with his daughter Amy (Vanessa Schofield), the one element of his life that is untouched by cynicism. However, he returns to work and gains unprecedented new success after meeting collector and patron Katherine Bowker (Suzette Llewellyn), who encourages him to cross further boundaries of artistic exploration by re-enacting in front of an audience a sequence of atrocities of ever escalating horror. These incidents, carried off with improvisatory flair by a chorus of actors, break down the ‘fourth wall’ decisively by involving us in the execution of the crimes. In the meantime Bowker cunningly extracts Amy from these events to prevent her applying restraints on her father, and sequesters her on her island retreat to pursue her own pattern of artistic contemplation. Ultimately Amy returns to her father, and one after the other each is ruthlessly drawn into a final and deeply symbolic immolation.
It is hugely to the credit of the production team, who have worked on this adaptation for a number of years, that they have managed to touch on so many important and rightly troubling issues. Some of these relate to art itself: are there boundaries left to what counts as art? Is the patron a noble and enabling figure or a selfish and manipulative one? Do artists inevitably sacrifice their loved ones for their art? Does art criticism now recognize any value other than sensationalism? But the most disconcerting questions relate to the increasingly aestheticised presentation of violence in the media and our exposure to it. Has this encouraged a voyeuristic numbing passivity that undermines our ability to react as citizens in real life? What should be the proper response to the ever more extensive depictions of violence? With daily manipulative reminders from ISIS that the boundaries of horror can in fact be pushed ever further, and a record disseminated around the world in no time, these could not be more pertinent questions.
So it was no surprise that it was the scenes based on court transcripts of real crimes that hit home hardest with the audience, creating some of those moments of totally silent concentration when you know everyone is engaged in the moment and the heart of the matter. But that should in no way detract from the quality of the acting and production values elsewhere. Woo is very effective at projecting a dangerous, unpredictable intensity as the troubled artist, and Schofield creates a still centre of alternative values and beauty, often using singing to powerful emotional effect. But perhaps the most intriguing acting came from Llewellyn whose motivations as artistic patron remain elusive behind a beguiling range of charm and generosity of spirit that also shades into opportunistic manipulation and a desire for reflected glory. Around and within each short scene is wrapped an inventive range of music, video projection (on the perspex curtains), sound effects and energetic, fluid interventions by the chorus, one of whom also has a nicely turned, funny cameo as an art critic who is revealed as a vapid relativist with no core beliefs.
My one negative comment on this excellent show is that it offers too much material for the time available. Within only eighty minutes a choice needs to be made between the development of characters in a narrative flow and dialogues on important abstract themes, and there is not really time enough to do justice to both. One wanted more time for the issues to be debated in detail, and for the relationships between the characters, especially those involving Amy, to be given a further dimension. Sometimes there was insufficient information to get the full picture, and especially towards the end, the telescoping of action and incident became confusing. A successful play of ideas does not have to be as long or as long-winded as Man and Superman currently playing at the National, but if there is an opportunity for another production elsewhere, I would urge another look at the script. The quality and importance of the questions raised deserves no less, and the vehicle selected is very apt for a longer, more developed version.
A traverse setting allows you to observe your fellow audience members in detail and it is testament to the consistently thought-provoking quality of this reimagined tale that the carefree cosmopolitan chatter at the start had given way by the end to animated but serious discussion of what we had witnessed, and above all to a certain shuffling awkwardness in the face of the uncomfortable truths glimpsed in the mirror held up to ourselves. We were disconcerted, and rightly so.