Plot me no plots

On February 23, 2014, in Theatre, by Luke McKernan

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The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, from What’s On Stage

On Saturday I went to the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, part of the Shakespeare’s Globe complex on London’s south bank. The theatre is an approximation of what an indoor theatre of the Jacobean theatre would have looked like, based on idealised plans for a theatre that date from the 1660s and which were only discovered in the 1960s. In Shakespeare’s time there were both open-air and closed theatres. We’re all familiar with the Globe, with the round building open to the elements, a central pit for the groundlings with protruding stage, and galleries around the edge. The indoor Blackfriars theatre, which was used first by child companies taken from cathedral schools, and later by the King’s Men (for who Shakespeare wrote) was converted from the refectory of a former monastery and put on performances during the winter months.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse recreates the experience with great technical skill and sympathetic imagination. It is lit by candlelight – six chandeliers, plus candles around the inner perimeter – by window light (which is how things were in the Jacobean theatre) and some underseat lighting (which is a twenty-first century blessing). There is seating for around 300, with a small pit (seated) with gallery behind it, and an upper gallery. The stage juts out into this space, with a musicians’ gallery above. There are trapdoors above and below, stage entrances to the sides and rear, and above it all a beautifully painted ceiling. Though the notes in the programmes record the agonised debates over authenticity, it looks right. Certainly the cramped seating gives the theatregoer a keen sense of Jacobean discomfort. The only real downside is the Globe’s mean refusal to allow any photography, even when the theatre is empty.

The play I saw was The Knight of the Burning Pestle, written by Francis Beaumont and first performed around 1607. It has long been a favourite, since I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production back in 1981, using the stage settings left over from the RSC’s legendary production of Nicholas Nickelby, and starring the then unknown Timothy Spall as Rafe, the grocer’s apprentice (he went on to name his son after the role, who is now the actor Rafe Spall).

The play is distinguished by a startling avant garde coup. It starts off by having the Chorus come on and announce that we are to see a play entitled The London Merchant. At this news, a grocer (The Citizen) and his wife who have been sitting in the audience get up and complain that they never see the lives of the common city folk properly celebrated on the stage. So they volunteer that their apprentice, Rafe (played by Matthew Needham), should join the company and experience adventures according to their directions. Thus we see what tries to be a conventional Jacobean drama about an heiress torn between two suitors rudely interrupted by Rafe pretending to be a knight (with the burning pestle as symbol of his trade) in a series of scenes that having nothing to do with the main action, though inevitably the two plots find that they have to converge and the actors gradually accommodate themselves to the bizarre interventions of Rafe and his companions, all the while being cheered on by the Citizen and Wife (played by the productions two star names, Phil Daniels and Pauline McLynn). “Plot me no plots” cries the Citizen, when one of actors complains that his stage directions have nothing to do with the action of their play. It’s a play that admits its plot has no meaning. Spectacle, action and the demands of the audience are all.

The bold imagination on display here makes the play feel post-modern before there was even a modern to be post to. Its deconstructive spirit extend to assorted parodies of Jacobean theatrical conventions, from supposedly dead people springing out of coffins (surely a spoof on Romeo and Juliet), to the ostensibly dead Rafe (he has an arrow through his head) giving a speech that apes that given by the ghost in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (“When I was mortal, this my costive corpse / Did lap up figs and raisins in the Strand”). However, its purpose is never satirical. Beaumont may have set out to mock stage conventions alongside the aspirations of the rising commercial class, but he clearly liked his theatre too much to do anything other that celebrate its diversity and heritage through parody, while his heartening sympathy towards Citizen, Wife and Rafe is free of any snobbery. It is simply a happy play.

It’s also a very long play (over three hours), but the time never dragged, and if the action occasionally strayed into incoherence, there was plenty of music and song to enjoy. The character Merrythought, a mixture of Falstaff and the Green Man, sings more than he speaks, and the multi-instrumental occupants of the musicians’ gallery took us beyond pastiche to a spirited and infectious celebration. I have see a few too many Elizabeth and Jacobean plays where the company’s attempt to portray jollity embarrassed more than it entertained, but here – as with the theatre itself – they got the balance just about right.

All that said, it’s an odd thing to build a facsimile theatre and to put on productions as though we were in the seventeenth century rather than the twenty-first. It reeks a little of sentimental historicisation, of a fear of the modern in drama, or the modern overall. The 1981 production of The Knight of the Burning Pestle that I saw made this point all too clearly, by having the start of the production seem like a portentous, doom-laden undertaking, which the Citizen and his Wife (in modern dress, as I recall) overturned with their demand for traditional entertainment of the kind that they could understand. The Globe’s production shies away from any such irony. Francis Beaumont would have been disappointed – but then would have gone along with the game. It’s that sort of play.

Every picture tells a story

On February 7, 2014, in Art, Exhibitions, Film, by Luke McKernan

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Natasha Richardson (as the art teacher Kathleen Bridle) and John Docherty (as William Scott) in Every Picture Tells a Story

Just under thirty years ago I went to a tiny cinema, the name of which escapes me, somewhere off Piccadilly, London, to see a dramatised documentary about the Irish painter William Scott. It was directed by the painter’s son, James Scott (who had won an Academy Award in 1983 for the Graham Greene short film A Shocking Accident), and was called Every Picture Tells a Story (UK 1984). Humble a production as it was, it nevertheless made a great impression on me. It told the story of the painter’s childhood up to the time when he left Northern Ireland for the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

It was a costume drama intercut with commentary from Scott himself, and three elements have remained stuck in my memory, along with the general impression of a fine film. One was when the teenage Scott is asked by an art teacher (played by Natasha Richardson) to draw an apple, to show what he can do. The very simplicity of this made a great impression on me. Another, oddly, was the abrupt ending, when Scott says that everything in art was changed by Cezanne, and the film ends there (I now know it was intended as part one of a trilogy, but the remaining parts were never made).

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‘Table Still Life’, 1951. All the paintings in this post are reproduced from from williamscott.org and are © Estate of William Scott

Third was the film’s most distinctive feature. One would witness a scene from Scott’s childhood, played out by actors, when abruptly the film would cut to one of his abstract or semi-abstract works, as a kind of flashforward showing how what impressed the child’s mind was later recapitulated as art. It was a startling, exhilarating innovation, which impressed me as a film enthusiast and turned me into a lifelong admirer of Scott’s art. The visual coup stayed with me, and though I never had the chance to see the film again I filed it away as a hidden gem, forever confirmed as one of my favourite films of that period.

2013 was the centenary of Scott’s birth and was marked by a major exhibition at the Ulster Museum in Belfast. I managed to get there on the very last day of the exhibition, 2 February 2014, when it so happened that there was screening of Every Picture Tells a Story. Would it still stand up? I spent the morning touring the exhibition, a thrilling experience being in the huge white space of the Museum’s main gallery, with Scott’s immaculate works all about me, and not a soul there (bar the occasional guard). What a rare joy to have an art gallery all to yourself. Scott’s paintings are best known for their use of domestic images such as tables, saucepans, jugs and cutlery, and for the skilful arrangement of line and plain blocks of colour. The works are abstract to a degree, but figurative also – they relate to something, yet need not relate to anything. To be in a room filled with them is heavenly.

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‘Two and Two’, 1962-63 © Estate of William Scott

And so to the film, shown in the Museum’s lecture room. It did not disappoint. I’d forgotten much of it (so mostly it was like seeing the film for the first time), but its special economy of style, at one with its subject, was what arrested me back in 1984 and which remained true. The film shows the Scott family living in Scotland when the father (a loving portrait played by Alex Norton) returns from the First World War. He moves the family to his home town of Enniskillen in Northern Ireland and makes his living as a sign painter Among his large brood of children, his son William is drawn to art, sketching objects on the kitchen table and helping out with his father’s work. The father takes him to a local art teacher, and after the father dies in an accident the local Presbyterian community see to it that the talented son is able to go to the Royal Academy in London.

The narrative is irrelevant, however. What matters is what is seen, and felt. There are the saucepans, plates, pots and tables that most obviously recur in Scott’s later art, which is revealed – as I remembered – by the startling cuts from figurative memory to abstract expression as the film cuts from story to paintings. There is the collapsing of time, between the unfolding story and the figure of William Scott himself, heard speaking but filmed sitting wordlessly, and between past and present most ingeniously (and economically) where Scott’s father prepares to go on an Orange parade in the 1920s before we see a 1980s parade taking place outside. Nothing, incidentally, is made of politics or religion, in the film. It is simply a part of the picture, of what is seen and felt.

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‘Egypt Series No. 2’, 1972, © Estate of William Scott

Which leads me to the film’s title. This was the part of it that had always bothered me. ‘Every Picture Tells a Story’ is a tired cliché, and an odd thing to say about art works which tend towards abstraction. The beauty of abstract art is that it does not tell a story. It is not dependent on narrative, be that figures arranged in a recognisable setting (e.g. historical) or a portrait, where we are encouraged to think who that person was, what thoughts lie behind their eyes. It is art that requires a key. In the film someone asks the young Scott why a book of paintings has no descriptions to say what the pictures signify, to which he replies that “pictures are for looking at – the picture tells the story”. The real-life Scott then tells us that “every picture tells a story”.

This is not ‘story’ as in narrative, but the abstraction of things seen and felt. They signify something of the story of William Scott, and that was obviously part of the filmmaker’s intentions, and his reason for the choice of title. But what ‘every picture tells a story’ really means is that the picture renders the story unnecessary. The pictures do not need a narrative explanation. The paradox could have made Every Picture Tells a Story a bad film, but instead it’s a film that is able to have it both ways. The pictures spring out of the story of William Scott, and they have no story at all. All that is there is all that you can see.

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William Scott, ‘Morning in Mykonos’, 1960-61 © Estate of William Scott

I returned to the gallery after the film screening, and passed through the rooms once more, which were now filled with people. The spell cast in the morning had been broken. Too many other eyes were looking, interpreting, confusing the narrative, breaking up the abstraction.

But do we ever have pure abstract art? Every picture plays upon something in our memories, even the simplest shape or a single colour must connect with something in the way that we see the world, or we would not see the picture at all. Art, in that respect, is the distillation of experience. Perhaps purely abstract art only exists in an empty gallery, where no one can see it, where there are no stories to be told. So I like to feel that, being in that gallery in the morning, when there was only me, that I might have come close to seeing it.

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The main gallery at Ulster Museum, showing the William Scott exhibition

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