The team that brought us The Pianist are back with another one-man physical theatre tour-de-force performed by Thomas Monckton, a New Zealander who trained and lives in Finland, working in collaboration with Circo Aereo. (The Artist is presented as part of the From Start to Finnish programme.)
Then, the trials and tribulations of being a concert pianist; now, the angst of creation as experienced by a smock-wearing painter trapped in his garret studio, trying to catch drips from the ceiling in his tea cup: The Artist could be described as The Pianist meets Tony’s Hancock’s The Rebel. (In between, we’ve also had another Monckton show, Only Bones, come to the UK – but that is a very different kettle of fish.) The Artist brings us a similar premise and construction to The Pianist. The classic clown situation of being trapped in one room. The ongoing battle with inanimate objects – specifically, the tools of the artist’s trade. The beautiful stupidity of human ego and endeavour.
The piano, curtains, music stand and sheet music are here replaced by easel, table, paint and brushes. Frames and framing as a motif are returned to again and again throughout the piece. A couple of unruly pieces of wood take ages to transform themselves into a square frame – they prefer life as a Picasso-esque rhomboid. The staple-gun employed to fix cloth to frame fights back, stapling the artist’s sock to the frame. The need to reclaim a jar of brushes from a top shelf is the cue for a gorgeous classic clown routine with shelf, table and trick ladder that shows off Monckton’s very able acrobatic skills. For although the circus skills are subtly integrated into the piece, rather than being at the fore, they are very much there – Monckton is a highly trained and very able physical performer.
The show teams with clever references to art and art history, and exploits the mores and cliches of the artist-starving-in-a-garret stereotype. The classic still-life display of a bowl of fruit, a wine bottle and a glass becomes the site for an extended and very funny object animation scene, in which a banana is admonished for being naked, and an apple gets painted red to match a ‘here’s one I made earlier’ painting. There’s also a number of audience participation scenes handled expertly – including an exuberant ping-pong game, and a scene in which a model is chosen from the audience, then made to swap roles with the artist. She’s conveniently matching Monckton’s beatnik blue-and-white striped French T shirt, but I am sure she wasn’t a plant!
Timing, rhythm, pace are all crucial in clown and comic physical theatre of this sort, and Monckton is a master. Some things are speedy, almost throwaway (after the long saga getting the brushes down, he finds he had one in his smock pocket all along). Some things are played slowly and carefully ( at one point he leaves the space empty as he goes to fetch a new canvas, this morphing (ha!) into a lovely Tony Hart / Vision On moment of live painting.)
The ending is delightful, as the space is transformed into – no, I won’t say. Go and see!
What a joy, what a pleasure, to see clown and physical theatre of this quality. The Pianist, The Artist – what next? This surely has to be trilogy.