Richard Foreman’s 1974 avant-garde theatre work Pain(t), debuting in its European premiere at the New Wimbledon Theatre Studio as part of Patrick Kennedy’s ‘Foreman at Fifty’ series, tickles the senses but tries the patience of all but the most committed student of performance art or theatre history. Forman is much lauded as a theatre pioneer and a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s coveted ‘Genius Grant’ (another notable recipient being Hamilton’s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda). Director Patrick Kennedy’s production offers a multi-layered, imagistic and undeniably challenging performance piece with flashes of thrilling spectacle surrounded with a series of in-jokes and the occasional pleasing riddle, but the play’s revival gives something else away: the work’s exploration of a seemingly timeless subject, the body’s relationship to art, has actually dated rather badly over the last half-century. The expectation that actors (briefly) getting their kit off in a statuesque pose would shock us comes across as rather quaint; as does much of the play’s misplaced confidence that it is still heretically defying any convention greater than simply not deigning to offer a story or emotional connection.
Staged in the studio’s sparse black box space, the audience is greeted with a multi-sensory tableau that evokes the weirder bits of some of the greatest pieces of art that you know you’ve seen, but perhaps can’t quite place. Rhoda (Emma Gilbey), Eleanor (Ivy Lamont) and Sophia (Ola Forman) are splendidly costumed in silk taffeta with exaggerated bustles that are used to much effect in fine physical performances and artful diction. We behold Max (Benjamin Chaffin) and Karl (Tommaso Giacomin) in hose and doublet, evoking Rembrandt glanced out of the corner of your eye. Impressively lit, we are brought into a chiaroscuro that gives us a kind of uncomfortable deja-vu of Goya-esque shadows and can’t help but feel compelled to try to piece together images and spoken references that nudge-nudge us with silliness and juvenility evocative of Andre Breton corresponding with Antonin Artaud. We are treated to some stunning props and masks used to outstanding visual effect. Like looking over the shoulder into the sketchbook of an unquestionably talented and creative person, there is much to behold, but: whilst these pieces stimulate, they fail to inspire.
Welcomed with disembodied recordings in various languages deliberately mis-synced to the actresses’ lips speaking into a microphone through a frame, we are saturated with sensation but not feelings. Here’s some art: layers and layers of it in all its pretension and glory and with initially exciting parody and ridicule. The amplified announcements, delivered directly from Patrick Kennedy, catch us out as he seemingly reads our minds — and we (should) have a giggle. Without question, this detailed and decisive display starts as intriguing and exciting to the senses whilst also coming across as knowing and, therefore, amusing. However, the relentless layers of imagery – as striking and powerful as they are – eventually become tedious. Pain(t) is a great date-night for the ultra-hip who want to share references about how pretentious they actually are but aren’t but are but aren’t. This series of tableaux strung together with wry commentary from the gods and ragtime music promises a trippy, rich Stendhal Syndrome-kind of vaudeville whilst serving up some hardcore brain food: ‘why are so many people naked in paintings?’; ‘is painting or drawing any human subject automatically a form of ownership or subjugation?’. However, unlike installations in a gallery where we can wander around and say ‘…ahhh’, we are captive on benches in the most conventional of spaces, held back by a fourth wall and the rare breaking of convention that simply holds too little surprise 50 years later.
Review by Mary Beer
Notoriously visual, highly cerebral and thrillingly subversive, Pain(t) presents a series of loosely connected vignettes relating to a mysterious protagonist called Rhoda as she attempts to become the greatest painter in Potatoland. On her voyage to glory, she ruthlessly dispenses with all obstacles in her way (including the living embodiment of the Godess Venus, an Italian nudist with 2 metre long arms and a Poodle King) with the single stroke of her brush. Can only the handsome and inexplicably Slavic young suitor named Max survive her insatiable appetite?
Monday 11th March AT 19:45
at New Wimbledon Theatre (Studio)