In anticipation of our revival of Mankind our Artistic Director contemplates the revisiting of art.
“That’s one thing that’s always… been a major difference, between the performing arts, to me, and being a painter… A painter does a painting, and he does a painting, that’s it, you know? He’s had the joy of creating it and he hangs it on some wall somewhere, somebody buys it, somebody buys it again, or maybe nobody buys it… but nobody ever says to him, nobody ever said to Van Gogh, “Paint ‘A Starry Night’ again, man!”-Joni Mitchell
That quote is at the beginning of a recording of a song I’ve listened to over and over again – literally thousands of times, I’m sure, over the past twenty-five years. (“Circle Game”, on Miles of Aisles). I’m that person who will play a song on loop for days, or weeks. So I appreciate the spirit Mitchell is talking about – that some things are so loved, we return to them again and again and again. But it was only last week that I really stopped to think about it, and I came to the conclusion that “finished” art actually isn’t, and that you don’t truly perform the same thing over and over again, even if it may initially seem that way. And it seemed relevant, as we are preparing to return to Mankind again, to share that with you.
In fact, art (by which I mean “fixed” art- painting, sculpting, etc. – something where there is a tangible end product) is reproduced all the time. Today it is also photographed and digitised, but you can still see art students in galleries learning their craft through copying the masters. You’ve probably seen “Starry Night” on coffee mugs, or calendars. Is it the same thing as the original? Of course not, but you’d still recognise what it was – much like seeing two different performances of the same play. Different brush strokes, same overall impression.
Moreover, although we tend to see a painting as simply existing, that is not enough: like performance, it has an audience. There is a viewer who interacts with it in some fashion, even if that is just a glance; they contemplate what it means, or are captivated by its colours. Visual art is exactly that: meant to be seen. And just like a play, a different audience on a different occasion will see different things. Maybe the lighting will be slightly brighter, or the viewer is sleepy. It will change what they see and how they feel about it. The initial act of painting may be singular – it’s true that Van Gogh only really got to do that specific copy of the painting one time – but between varieties of copying and the long life of the physical painting, it is revisited over and over. The difference, then, between the kind of art you hang on the wall in a museum and the kind you see when you go to a performance is largely a question of tangible durability.
So… we’re coming back to Mankind. I’m not claiming it’s a masterpiece in any way comparable to a Van Gogh painting. But I am rather fond of the production. It’s one of my favourite medieval plays, and the cast are a lovely group of people who bring it to life delightfully. Unlike the performance in November, which was a further step from our initial staged reading in Bristol, we’re not making major changes: we’re pretty happy with the show we have. Last autumn, circumstances meant that we couldn’t give it the run we would have liked it to have. It deserves a wider audience. And so we decided to do it again.
It won’t be exactly the same production, any more than a photograph of “A Starry Night” is “A Starry Night”. Time changes things, and no two performances are identical anyway. We’re in a different venue, one which will speak more to the modern qualities of the production than the medieval. The cast will be slightly different. We’ll probably have the opportunity to perfect a few minor details. But it’s still our Mankind, brought back to life, and maybe with a few small adjustments. I for one can’t wait.