Review: Darshan Singh Bhuller's Caravaggio: Exile and Death at The Place

Performance: 10 - 12 November 2011
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 24 November 2011

Darshan Singh Bhuller is a creator of dance theatre who sees his subject through the eyes of a filmmaker: Caravaggio was a “Great Master” painter (albeit one largely ignored by the art world for 300 years after his death) whose experimentations with chiaroscuro (the strong contrasts between darkness and light) led Bhuller to suppose that had Caravaggio lived in modern times he, too, would have been a filmmaker. I have no trouble in believing that the great movie directors of the Film Noir genre must have been influenced – even if only indirectly – by Caravaggio’s innovative approach to achieving drama through shadows and the minimalist, but bold, reflection of light on bodies and clothing.

In effect, Bhuller has created a theatrical, dance equivalent of a bio-pic, following on in shades of relevance from Derek Jarman’s 1986 film Caravaggio by engaging a scattered array of cleverly-constructed visual frames to encapsulate episodes in the painter’s troubled life. These begin with a talking i-Pad, framing the mouth of a man who has just been closely-shaved with a cut-throat razor, telling us of the comparatively recent discovery that Caravaggio’s early death (in 1610, at the age of 39) was probably due to the poisonous build-up of lead from his paints. This was accompanied by a memorable solo, imitating the painter’s deathbed agonies, where Lee Clayden’s powerful muscular control and release made it appear that his ribcage had migrated into his chest. The later scene in which Clayden’s Caravaggio places coins inside the mouth of his rent-boy lover (Renaud Wiser) was equally dramatic. Bhuller took a leaf out of the Hitchcock book of direction by placing himself into the work as a filmed action portrait of a laughing, leering, sunglass-wearing Cardinal in red silk robes. There were many more such powerful images and, unsurprisingly, given Bhuller’s experience as a filmmaker, the integration of film and movement was very cleverly contrived and made much of the intimacy of The Place, creating sense and feel for both the Palazzi and the poverty of early seventeenth century Italy.

Clayden’s memorable performance in the title role was inspired casting and he gave earthy, solid, chiaroscuro realism to Caravaggio (a man who was frequently in trouble with authority and who certainly killed at least once in many fights). Bhuller’s narrative fluctuated from bringing Caravaggio’s most famous paintings to life (Lisa Welham laid out as a corpse to mirror his Death of a Virgin was a particularly powerful image, especially since Caravaggio used the putrefying dead body of a prostitute fished out of the Tiber as his model for the painting), to an on-off tour of some of the more notable episodes in the painter’s life. But amongst this was a fictional account of a ménage-a-trois between Caravaggio and the unnamed characters played by Wiser and Welham, which spoke unsympathetically of the painter’s brutish attitude towards sex with both men and women, although providing the opportunity for two significant duets, notably the one between Wiser and Welham that opened the second act.

My only criticism is that the music didn’t always sit well on the work and I found the ensemble numbers sometimes to have a Vaudeville style, and although the choreography used the space effectively and the performances from his six players was universally good, the music occasionally seemed out of place and time. Nonetheless, I applaud Bhuller for taking on a huge subject and portraying it, with no lack of power, on a small scale in an intimate setting. It is a recipe for strong, memorable work that he seems capable of applying consistently.

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