When I started writing this column in 2001 I didn’t have much time for the theatre. As a child of the Thatcherite Eighties, I regarded state funding of the arts as a ruse cooked up by the liberal intelligentsia to obtain cheap tickets, and thought of theatre people as effete intellectual snobs who spent their time congratulating each other on being so much more cultured and intelligent than the rest of us. Whenever Jonathan Miller appeared on television, I turned it off.
Four years later, I’ve had such a complete change of heart that I felt like one of the luckiest men alive as I sat in an abandoned factory in Southwark watching a production of Sunday in the Park With George, a Stephen Sondheim musical that even Sondheim aficionados regard as difficult. The smile didn’t even leave my face when, during a song called ‘Putting It Together’, the cast started repeating the words ‘art isn’t easy’, a phrase which seemed to function both as a self-aggrandising explanation on Sondheim’s part for the fact that nearly every musical he writes these days is a commercial flop and a wet kiss to all those diehard fans who’ve been willing to make the intellectual effort that Sondheim clearly believes is necessary to appreciate his ‘art’.
Four years ago, I might have actually been physically sick at this point. Not today. I loved every second of it and I’ve spent the past week hunting down the original Broadway cast recording. Who knows, by this time next year I may even have turned into a fully-fledged homosexual.
Part of the charm of this production is that it has been mounted in a disused chocolate factory. Even by fringe standards, the Menier is a pretty down-at-heel establishment. It doesn’t receive a penny from the Arts Council and there’s no rich patron hovering in the background. It exists thanks to the energy and dedication of the two people who run it, David Babani and Danielle Tarento, a pair of cuckoos I would have dismissed as ‘luvvies’ four years ago, but whom I now regard as almost saint-like. God knows how they raised the money to finance this production since the chances of it breaking even are non-existent. It’s a folie de grandeur and if there’s any justice in the world it will become the unlikeliest hit of the season.
Sunday in the Park With George is ostensibly about two artists, Georges Seurat, the inventor of pointillism, and his fictional grandson, a conceptual artist working in New York in the Eighties. But, of course, it’s really about Stephen Sondheim. It’s a meditation on what kind of person becomes an artist — in the case of Seurat/ Sondheim, it’s apparently someone who suffers from a form of autism that makes it impossible for him to connect emotionally with other people — and what the human costs are of remaining true to your sense of vocation.
As a play, Sunday in the Park With George is far from perfect. Its principal shortcoming is that the second half, which concerns itself with Seurat’s notional grandson, isn’t nearly as good as the first half and ends on a sentimental, upbeat note that completely fails to do justice to the complexity of what’s come before. Yet it scarcely matters because the ideas that Sondheim and his book writer, James Lapine, are examining are so interesting — and the attempt to examine them in the context of a Broadway musical is in itself such a fascinating exercise — that you’re willing to forgive him almost anything. One of the central questions posed by Sunday in the Park With George is whether a work of art that concerns itself with ideas and is created in a cold, mechanical way, such as Seurat’s masterpiece that forms the centrepiece of the first half, can evoke an emotional response. And the answer is a resounding yes, since this musical does just that — and in doing so it provides a rebuttal to those who accuse Sondheim of being all head and no heart.
My enthusiasm for this production is so great that I want to add several more paragraphs about the luminous central performance by Daniel Evans and the surefootedness of the director, Sam Buntrock, but that would leave me no room to rave about the two other plays I’ve seen recently, The Emperor Jones and When You Cure Me. The Emperor Jones is a short work by Eugene O’Neill that has been brought vividly to life by Thea Sharrock and When You Cure Me is a dazzlingly well-written new play by Jack Thorne about a recovering teenage victim of a sexual assault. I recommend both without reservation.
This is the last theatre column I’ll be writing this year and may prove to be the last one I’ll ever write, depending on whether Boris decides to go and, if so, who succeeds him. In case I do get the chop, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Boris for, in effect, opening my mind about the theatre. I came to jeer and stayed to cheer. It has become one of the great joys of my life and I sincerely hope it will have the same effect on my successor. When it’s bad, it’s very, very bad — there’s no doubt about that — but when it’s good it’s absolutely bloody fantastic and if you don’t believe me go and see Sunday in the Park With George.