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Jo Caird: Where Theatre & Art Meet

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Tuesday evening found me in the atmospheric surroundings of the Crypt Gallery at St Pancras Church, watching a piece of theatre called Il Deserto, which was made in response to the art exhibition currently running in the space, Navigating in the Dark Part III, by the Greek artist Kalliopi Lemos.

The show, created by the Greek theatre director Theodoros Therzopoulos, comprised a solo performance in Italian of some writings by the 19th-century writer and philosopher Carlo Michelstaedter. Performed by Italian actor Paolo Musio, with help from the director himself in Ancient Greek, Il Deserto was an intense affair that required unusual efforts of concentration.

But then, that was very much the intention. According to the programme notes, “the collaboration focused on an impromptu interaction between the actor and the artwork – a raw display of emotions and performance, which involved the direct dialogue with the artwork as a fellow performer...A new form of artwork is created, which transcends the ordinary visual response to the traditional display of art”.

The arrangement of the seating in the midst of the exhibition meant that instead of having Musio in my eye line, I had one of Lemos's works, 'Wooden Boat with Seven People' directly in front of me. Musio's performance, a passionate, Beckettian monologue expressing the desperation of the place between life and death, therefore became for me a sort of narration of Lemos's striking installation. I only wish I had been able to walk around the space and experience her other pieces in this way during the performance, rather than being confined to my seat. This would have enabled greater engagement with the work I think, which is presumably what the show's creators were seeking.

Il Deserto was* a unique combination of visual art and avant-guard European theatre, but there is plenty of performance being made in this country that exists in the blurred creative space between theatre and art. The live art scene is going strong, with venues such as the Chelsea Theatre, Stoke Newington International Airport and Edinburgh's Forest Fringe all presenting exciting live art-focused programmes.

This week, in fact, Chelsea is hosting SACRED, a season of live art performance that the theatre's team anticipates will attract around 1,000 people to 14 shows from British and international artists. Formerly an annual event, several SACRED seasons will now run periodically throughout the year (funding willing), giving live art at the theatre greater momentum and profile.

This kind of work, which might include spoken word, song, dance and audience interaction, can offer immensely exciting and satisfying experiences to theatre audiences, but it also tends to be challenging, whether in terms of its content or format, particularly to the uninitiated. In other words, it's often pretty odd and therefore isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea (I'd recommend giving it a go though; you never know until you try).

Fortunately, elements of the live art experience are available in somewhat more accessible contexts through the work of companies such as You Me Bum Bum Train (whose latest show, which opens next week, sold out in under a minute), 1927, Duckie and of course, Punchdrunk. These companies, while not exactly creating mainstream theatre, at least offer audiences the relative security of a narrative framework within which to explore challenging moments of performance. The fact that these companies are now collaborating with venues including the National Theatre, the Barbican and the English National Opera just goes to show how open theatre audiences have become to experiencing work that is likely to test their boundaries. You never know what will happen when theatre and art meet.

*Navigating in the Dark Part III is on until 27 November, but the show has now completed its briefest of runs.


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