We are already disconcerted by patients being wheeled past us as we wait to be guided through the corridors of the Royal London Hospital for Neil Bartlett's The Seven Sacraments Of Nicolas Poussin. On taking our seats in the lecture theatre, we all – almost without exception – flip up the hinged desk surfaces, as if to suggest that we are here to study the piece rather than to watch it. Bartlett enters in doctor's white coat, strides to a lectern, clips a microphone to his lapel and begins.
It commences as an art lecture on Poussin's identically-sized canvases (now on display in the National Gallery of Scotland) representing baptism, confirmation, marriage, penance, ordination, holy Eucharist and extreme unction – albeit an art lecture into which medical remarks are surreally interpolated. Then Bartlett moves from the series in general to each particular canvas: details are projected overhead, Bartlett himself doffs his coat, shirt and trousers in favour of a patient's surgical smock and takes up the pose of a particular figure, whilst Robin Whitmore chalks series of seemingly random lines which eventually resolve themselves (sometimes only when the blackboard is wiped over) into beautifully articulated hands.
Bartlett's argument is that, however little we may know of the liturgical ceremonies commemorated by these paintings, or of the scenes from the life of Christ or the early church which they depict, we have experienced such events ourselves in one form or another. He mixes descriptions of the paintings with extracts from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the sermons of John Donne, passages of real or pretended personal recollection and fantastical contemplation. A wedding ring triggers a venomously queer exchange, of which Bartlett recites both sides; consideration of the Magdalene washing Christ's feet shifts into a powerful, unadorned string of pleas to be abased, humiliated and then forgiven.
Bartlett invokes all these disparate materials in order to evoke an individual response in each person watching. Although the presentation is both verbally and visually complex, it creates a masterly illusion of simplicity, such that the simple opening of a side door to admit another source of light is a theatrical coup. The final movement, "Extreme Unction", is entirely in the hands of the audience. We are led quietly into a neighbouring theatre, where Bartlett is sitting in silent vigil by a hospital bed. We are invited to contemplate for as long as we wish, and to leave when we wish.
We cannot but make our own associations at each stage of Bartlett's presentation, whether triggered by major disquisitions or throwaway phrases. The most powerful dialogue is the unspoken one between the performers and each of us, a dialogue of separate but common experience.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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