Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Bakelite Masterpiece

Mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.
Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the age of Mechanical Reproduction. 1935.

There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.
Benjamin, Walter. Theses on the Philosophy of History. 1940.

The current production of Kate Cayley’s poetic drama, The Bakelite Masterpiece, is just that - a perfect, intimate array of complex theatrical gems that radiate outward toward a very troubled world of imitation and immense beauty. Using the work of Johannes Vermeer as an artistic touchstone, Cayley creates an intricate web of intrigue and interrogation.

Vermeer’s meticulous renderings of interior scenes possess a soft, peaceful quality that both inspires and calms the viewer. Cayley’s play, however, is far form calming as she utilizes the painters work in order to illustrate the ways in which art and life can deceive each other into thinking that peace can be found at the end of intense chaos. Holland, at he end of the second world war, acts as an historical site for subtle romance and political intrigue to play themselves out within a claustrophobic, textural set - masterfully designed by Charlotte Dean. Geordie Johnson, as a gifted yet admittedly derivative painter, and Irene Poole as his accuser, create a powerful sense of connection to the fine art in question.

What Cayley never addresses - and rightfully so - in great detail is that Vermeer was considered a moderately successful provincial genre painter in his lifetime, and only gained notoriety much later as one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age. This necessary omission allows the play and the work of art being interrogated to stand securely on a pedestal of high artistic proportions - until we hear all of what Cayley so astutely points out in a beautiful and enlightening examination of the ways in which surface beauty glosses over the chaos and ugliness that often lies beneath.

Director Richard Rose has managed the characters and the playing space with a strong sense of physical engagement, utilizing scene changes to point out the meta-theatrical sense of the actual mechanics of art happening onstage as we watch it unfold.  

Johnson delivers his lines with an extremely engaging and measured intensity that give Cayley’s words the poetic resonance they require. His performance is matched by the authoritarian - turning into poignant and remorseful - tones that Poole offers up; until the measured darkness of a soft yet moving final scene flirts with intense revelation, tragedy, and an insightful form of anti-climax. Gradual lighting changes throughout, designed by Andr√© du Tout, add a very effective, layered beauty to the progression of tightly knit scenes between these two conflicted art connoisseurs.

At the centre of the narrative is the figure of a woman - a woman in a painting and a woman questioning the validity of that painting. Poole has the physical grace and power to become both, literally and metaphorically. She creates a character that is moved by both deception and truth (the truth of deception and the deception of truth). Ultimately, the deceiving plasticity that the title substance - Bakelite - both reveals and withholds from its audience, becomes a symbol of a contemporary landscape where celebrities, artists, politicians - what have you - frequently hide behind a beautiful glossy veneer that can destroy the actual subject. The meta-text becomes a moving and harrowing commentary on the ways in which art - and the objectification of feminine beauty and agency - can play a complex part in the career of a moderately successful male artist from the 17th century whose work continues to be heralded as magnificent representation.


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