Friday 20 March 2009

‘From Today Painting is Dead’

So said the artist Paul Delaroche, but don't panic; he was speaking in 1839 after the invention of the Daguerreotype, an early form of photograph. And he probably didn't say it anyway, but it's often attributed to him, and many at the time might have thought it a likely prediction.

Thankfully, Delaroche was wrong and for the next hundred years or so, painting just got better and better, with artists liberated from the ambition to faithfully provide a visual representation of their subject and instead were able to visually provide a faithful representation of it. In the process of forming an impression of the world in the mind of the viewer, that brief period of nanoseconds during which information is represented as a collection of photons was at last seen in its proper proportion.

More recently, over the past century or so, a similar question could have been asked regarding the potential effect of cinema on the theatre. Cinema would seem to beat theatre hands down with the ability to bring to its viewers anything that can be filmed anywhere on Earth, while the theatre's unworthy scaffold can only show what can be fitted into that small space of the stage. And with CGI and other special effects able to present on the screen not only what is, but whatever can be imagined to be, the contest might seem to be over. The benefit of being just yards away from stage populated by real people can hardly make up for the fact that that is all that they are – real people.

Happily, seeing War Horse at the National Theatre at the weekend proved to me, if I didn't already know it, that the theatre can still present us with experiences than the cinema can never achieve. The unarguable stars of War Horse are two puppet horses, Joey and Topthorn. No effort is made to hide the three puppeteers that operate each animal, and there has been little attempt to add any kind of finishing touches to the puppets – they are simple frameworks of wood and metal, resembling what a Victorian inventor might have come up with in his quest to create an equine robot. Only the creature's ears are finished with enough detail to have an appearance similar to the genuine article, but with the ears, as with every other feature of these wonderful illusions, the trick is not in how they look, but how they move.

To be honest, I haven't made any great study of how real horses move. I know (thanks to Eadweard Muybridge's ingenious application of photography) that they take all four hooves of the ground during a gallop, but this didn't actually come up during the play. The point though is not to represent the horses with indisputable accuracy; it's to make me believe I'm seeing them.

There's a certain irony in both of the film productions of Henry V that they include the Prologue, with the lines:

"Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them."

and then go on to actually show us horses, somewhat beating the point. War Horse does a little more than talk of horses, but we most certainly see them. What is more, despite the fact that the horses do nothing even faintly supernatural – they do not talk, nor lead their masters to a little boy trapped down a mine – they are as present as characters as any human on the stage. The original novel (which I haven't read, but will) is written from the horse Joey's point of view and so naturally he will be seen as a character in his own right, but since a play cannot in the same way have a point of view (and War Horse does not even try) it would be easy to lose this vital personality. (In a similar way, Bertie Wooster rarely comes across as well in dramatizations as he does in the books where he is there narrator of his own adventures.) Thus it is a glorious achievement that, without a single word, it is the horses that make the show.

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to see another play, again at the National, which relied on puppetry: the two part dramatization of His Dark Materials (which I'll be seeing again in a few weeks at the Birmingham Rep). In this case it's possible to make a direct comparison with the cinematic equivalent in the form of The Golden Compass. While the film may have been able to do better in terms of the spectacle, it is the daemons which make the story, and here, as more recently in War Horse, the theatre excelled. But compared to either, what's going on in my head when I'm reading the novel wins without contest. Again, the Prologue of Henry V explains it all:

"And let us, ciphers to this great account,
On your imaginative forces work."

Whether we're talking about painting, theatre, cinema or literature, the purpose of art is to inspire our imaginations, not supplant them.

And I forgot to mention the unsung star of War Horse – a remarkably convincing farmyard goose.

War Horse has moved from the National Theatre to the New London Theatre, where it opens on March 28th.
His Dark Materials runs at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre until April 18th.

1 comment:

  1. Everything is not fiction. Reality is real and very much whole.