It’s no secret that the theatre industry can be pretty self-centred. The prevalence of theatre about theatre is testament to that: The Play That Goes Wrong, Nell Gwynn, Red Velvet, Shakespeare in Love, Harlequinade and Mr Foote’s Other Leg have all recently enjoyed West End runs. But is theatre well-equipped to examine the nature of art in general, or does it merely raise questions about its own players? We thought we’d look at shows depicting other art forms to find out: here, then, are our top five plays and musicals about visual art.
1. Sunday in the Park with George – Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine
“Artists are so peculiar.”
Sondheim had vowed to retire from musical theatre in 1981, but he was persuaded otherwise after being inspired by George Seurat’s 1884 masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
The show’s creators took seriously the business of being true to the original work of art: Sondheim’s score, full of delicate staccato, mimics Seurat’s pointillist style, and a special ‘chromolume’ laser sculpture was created as part of the design to reflect Seurat’s use of light and colour. Sunday’s set and lighting have won plaudits across various incarnations, including at the 1984 Tony and Drama Desk Awards and the 2007 Oliviers.
This is a musical for serious art-lovers as well as theatre-lovers of all varieties. The Sunday Times gushed, “You will never look at a painting in the same way.”
2. The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk – Daniel Jamieson
“In our life there is a single colour, as on an artist’s palette, which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the colour of love.”
This delightful piece from Kneehigh and Bristol Old Vic tells the story of Russian-Jewish painter Marc Chagall and his wife Bella Rosenfeld as they navigated – and sometimes, together, managed to transcend – the Russian Revolution and the upheaval that followed. The whole show is filled with visual references to Chagall’s paintings, from the easel-like playing area itself to the comedy hats topped with huge multi-coloured animals. Even the publicity mimics Chagall’s Over The Town.
For all its whirling movement and high romance, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk provides a tonic to grandiose notions of art. Domestic life grounded Chagall: his lofty protestations about the pain of the artistic process seem ludicrous when set alongside Bella’s pain in childbirth. Here, art and life feed off each other in a mutually beneficial relationship, while Marc and Bella feed each other fish balls.
3. The Shape of Things – Neil LaBute
“Is that art, or did you just forget to take your Ritalin? There’s gotta be a line. For art to exist, there has to be a line out there somewhere.”
The play’s two leads are a naïve but well-meaning man called Adam and the worldly, confident Evelyn, who seduces him. If it sounds suspiciously like the Book of Genesis, well, that’s no coincidence.
Evelyn is an art student who picks up gauche Adam in a museum and embarks on a relationship with him, over the course of which she convinces him to make increasingly dramatic changes in his appearance and lifestyle, and eventually to cut off his best friends. At her thesis presentation, she reveals Adam himself as her “untitled sculpture”: his transformation has been her art project all along, and their relationship merely a means to that end.
The Shape of Things may be pretty ‘meta’ in its references – Pygmalion features heavily – but LaBute’s pithy dialogue is in full flight here and turns the play into something tangible and relatable.
4. Red – John Logan
“Not every painting has to rip your guts out and expose your soul! Not everyone wants art that actually hurts!”
Red is the story of famed American artist Mark Rothko as he tried to complete a series of red murals commissioned for The Four Seasons restaurant in Park Avenue’s new Seagram building. The Donmar Warehouse’s 2009 production starred Alfred Molina as the irascible painter, but it was also the show that introduced Eddie Redmayne to the world as Rothko’s long-suffering assistant Ken.
Molina and Redmayne had to learn how to mix paint, prime a canvas and more, with the show reaching its climax in a silent, two-minute sequence in which the characters slather the eponymous red paint onto the huge canvases that line the stage.
Red is occasionally painful viewing, but it is always profoundly, palpably human.
5. ‘Art’ – Yasmina Reza
“You say ‘the artist’ as if he’s some unattainable being. The artist…some sort of god…”
Before his turn as the legendary Rothko in Red, Alfred Molina played a dissatisfied stationery salesman in the Broadway production of ‘Art’, a play in which a white (or is it?) modernist painting threatens to destroy the friendship between Serge, Marc and Yvan. Molina won a Tony Award for his performance, and Christopher Hampton’s version of the original French-language play ran for eight years in London.
Here, too, the question of what constitutes ‘real’ art is crucial, and subtle parallels are drawn between the art of painting and the art of theatre: the play’s endnote is a statement that the offending canvas “represents a man who moves across a space then disappears”.
- Jessie Anand