Aridhi Anderson is a theatremaker, performer and reviewer based in Melbourne. Check out her work at aridhianderson.com.
A stunning musical and a work of art about art
Winner of a Pulitzer Prize for drama and nominated for ten Tony Awards, Sunday in the Park with George by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine is a stunning musical and a theatrical masterpiece. Sondheim repertory company, Watch This, presented an exquisitely touching production of this show this August, which had far too short a run (sold out) at The Lawler, Southbank Theatre (21 - 24 August), with shows at other venues around Melbourne and Geelong earlier on in the season.
Inspired by Georges Seurat's impressionist painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, the show itself is a work of art, about art; a kind of meta commentary on the painting based on an imagined backstory, but with applications that extend far beyond this particular work, which resonate with aesthetes and artists across art forms. In the first act of the show, we're told that critics said Seurat's painting had no life, no heart, no vitality; only technique, only head. But we're also shown the passion and obsessive commitment that went into its creation, the sacrificial single-mindedness that saw no cause greater than the truthful depiction of the world as the artist interpreted it. Such artistic passion rarely exists without casualties: in this case, the artist's relationship with his lover and model, Dot, who accuses him of being blind to her and to the real world, hiding behind his painting. To which George poignantly responds, "I am not hiding behind my canvas, I am living in it."
Nick Simpson-Deeks and Vidya Makan were stunning in the lead roles, bringing originality, nuance and persuasiveness to each of the characters they played. Their performances, supported by a stellar ensemble cast, were key to making this the flawless production that it was. In the spirit of Seurat's painting, this production drew richly from theatrical and artistic techniques, and was well balanced in its various aspects - choreography, tech, lighting, music, and so forth. Rhiannon Irving's costume design was a particular stand out, incorporating a beautiful pointillistic effect into all the costumes except for the artist's own, thereby subtly yet brilliantly illuminating the artist's point of view, and giving life to his statement about him not hiding behind his canvas but living in it.
Sunday in the Park with George is a play of gentle drama and understated crescendos, which relies on the pure art of simple observation and uncomplicated interpersonal interactions to highlight some surprisingly deep aspects of how people experience the world and each other. Nothing in this play is gimmicky or gratuitous, which makes it even harder to anticipate in advance the powerful emotional intensity of its peaks. This production draws its audience in effortlessly and takes them on a journey like no other.