Vanity and Art – now there’s a hand in glove combination. Many would be right. Isn’t creating a piece of art the ultimate display of vanity? Think of the Taj Mahal – Shah Jahan even ordered the thumbs of his best artists to be cut off when they finished work on his marble monument, so that it couldn’t be replicated. Or, is art truly sublime only when vanity is overcome? Think of the late Hindustani vocalist Bhimsen Joshi who would often manage to reach and remain in a deep, meditative zone that would make him almost oblivious to his enthralled audience. Or why don’t we think of Roger Federer and his tennis that transcends sport into the realm of high art?
The aim of many creative people who aren’t the kind of supreme geniuses as described above, is to try and strike those feelings of awe and admiration in their audience. In many cases they almost pull it off. In the hugely successful novel Life after Life, Kate Atkinson’s character Ursula starts off with a bang – by aiming her gun at Hitler and assassinating him in a cafe as he’s about to eat his favourite streuselkuchen. We are then dragged into Ursula’s birth some years before this, back in rural England, when she nearly dies strangled by her umbilical cord. Ursula has many close shaves in subsequent years and the author experiments with her death and reincarnation throughout the book – killing her, bringing her back – rearranging the (fairly repetitive) scenes of her family and the war going on around her. For example, feisty Ursula is merely one avatar in many parallel lives described in the story – at one point, she is portrayed as a terribly abused and battered wife. The writer is obviously extremely gifted and mixes scholarship and story-telling very well – she has received much praise for handling the ‘what if’ aspect in this novel. I could only imagine her at her desk writing these vivid scenes. It felt as if she couldn’t make up her mind about which of them to keep and which to discard – so she devised a clever way to keep them all. Sadly, the pedalling forwards and backwards of Ursula’s life set in the definite time-period of the war years felt contrived and had too many spokes jutting out for me.
Last week I was appreciating the original piece of work in the play, Brimful of Asha, at the Tricycle theatre – having one’s own mother appearing as herself made a hackneyed story of arranged marriage a surprisingly fresh experience. In that production, the warmth and affection that was underlying in the clash portrayed between mother and son, enhanced the quality of the production.
This past week, I went to see An Oak Tree at the Bristol Old Vic. Tim Crouch, who wrote the play and also acts in it has been performing this for ten years and has won multiple awards. The premise of this is meant to be clever and mostly is. Tim Crouch walks in at the start and introduces himself as a 51-year old TV hypnotist who has recently been in an accident – the car he was driving hits a young girl who dies as a result. The father of this child, Andy, is supposed to be a 6’2″ builder who is to feature on the hypnotist’s show. Andy spends most of his time reliving his daughter’s life and is convinced that the oak tree growing near his house is her.
At this point, we were told that the actor who plays Andy is someone chosen just an hour before the show. He or she is given headphones and a script and for the rest of the duration of the play will obey the commands of the hypnotist/writer/director – all of whom is Tim Crouch. Andy was played by Neve McIntosh on the night – being female was no impediment – she was seamless in her acceptance of the challenge and gave a powerful performance of the grieving father. As the hypnotist gets more and more manic, he humiliates Andy in different ways. The point when he persuades Andy to believe that he had driven into a child and caused its death was particularly dark and disturbing. The hypnotist issuing commands and his slow disintegration is done well by Tim Crouch. Yes, it was impressive that the supporting role was played by an unprepared actor. But something of the power in this story was lost in being asked to focus on that fact rather than the more important themes like grief and manipulation of it. If this was presented as a simple story of a hypnotist and his victim – I would’ve been more moved and impressed. It was very telling that the audience reaction was one of knowing laughter at the theatrical trick we were witnessing than a deeper empathy with the tragic story.
So, as I painfully eke out yet another blogpost, the foremost thing to remember that pretension is a closer relative of vanity than of art!