Artists have always captured the imagination of writers – for novelists, playwrights and screenwriters, the idea of the tortured genius fighting for recognition or the lonely romantic struggling to express their feelings in art offers an immediate entry point to a story. Some focus on a particular period in an artist’s life, like Nicholas Wright’s Olivier Award winning Vincent In Brixton about van Gogh’s time spent living in south London. Some delve into the theory of art, like John Logan’s multi-award winning Red about Mark Rothko. Some, like Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize winning Sunday In Park With George about Georges Seurat (returning to London in 2020 starring Jake Gyllenhaal) take a particular painting as their starting point.
In the case of Reformation by James Martin Charlton, now playing at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington, the subject is the German renaissance painter Lucas Cranach, and Charlton’s way into the story is through the experiences of one of Cranach’s models, Eva. A chance meeting in Berlin between the poor Eva and Cranach’s son leads to a relationship, to Eva being chosen as the model for the painter’s Rape of Lucrece, and ultimately to the all-powerful Elector of Brandenburg’s discovery of and desire for Eva. Both Cranach and Eva are faced with a moral question. The painter has to decide whether or not to destroy his son’s happiness for his own commercial success (in keeping with the views of the time, Cranach spends a lot of time in the play talking about the commercial value of art, far more than he does the spiritual or aesthetic value). Meanwhile, Eva has to decide how much she is prepared to sacrifice her body in exchange for financial security, and whether being “the girl in the painting” is a good thing or not.
It is all too easy, with the distance of time, to celebrate the artists of the Renaissance and beyond who painted nudes, to romanticise the work and suggest that it glorifies the human form or that those artists are recalling the art of ancient Greece and that the subject matter is based on art historical study. However, Charlton’s play reminds us that any commercial exchange that involves a person’s body has consequences, and the beautiful paintings of history were almost exclusively painted by and for men. Cranach’s subject, agreed between painter and patron, is hardly selected to celebrate either art history or mythology, as the subsequent events make abundantly clear.
Charlton also explores the religious moment in which these events unfold, with the ‘everything can be forgiven if you confess’ view of opulent Catholicism. Matt Ian Kelly is constantly entertaining as the Archbishop of Mainz, attempting to balance the credibility of confession with his own unholy desires, while Alice De-Warrenne convinces in the role of Eva, the strong minded young woman who fights against her family to secure independence but who must then decide what to do with that independence – if, in fact, she can ever be truly independent of the powerful figures around her.
The play is written in a resolutely contemporary vocabulary and presented in modern dress, to mixed success. The modern text has an energy that is sometimes lost in translation, and the modern dress could be far bolder – the anachronistic approach is designed to present the story in the context of the #metoo movement, with the Elector clearly a Weinstein-style character, but the costuming is too general for that to be entirely successful and there could be a greater commitment to playing with the anachronism of the text. Nevertheless, this is a strong reminder that neither the passage of time nor the context of art should ever lull us into disregarding the kind of abuses that the powerful can wield.
James Haddrell is the Artistic & Executive Director of Greenwich Theatre
White Bear Theatre, until 13 July 2019