The Bowler Hat - The Life and Death of René Magritte
Written and Directed by Angie Farrow
7 - 11 February
6pm (70 Minutes Approx)
There was a hold-up with the programmes - they were only distributed shortly before the beginning of the show. Which is a shame, because The Bowler Hat is the kind of play that benefits from being explained in advance. The 'Author's Note' raises the issue of surrealist painter René Magritte's patently unconvincing denial of a connection between his own history and the images in his art, and says that the play "explores these questions using genres prominent in Magritte's heyday - the thriller and avant-garde theatre".
Having struggled my way to an approximate understanding of this purpose by watching the actual play, this doesn't help me understand why it was worthwhile.
As friends and relatives gather over the Magritte's body an investigator, Detective Tigram, bursts in and puts a halt to proceedings, unannounced and unexplained, not completely unlike the inspector in JB Priestley's play (vaguely contemmporary to Magritte) An Inspector Calls. Tigram has decided that Magritte killed his own mother (Magritte's experience of his mother's suicide is considered a strong influence on his imagery, as we learn from the programme) and is mortally determined to prove it. So it's a kind of detective thriller, execept that the "suspect" is both identified and dead. This, it has to be said, removes much of the thrill.
As the action goes on, we are given to understand this investigator is like the detective in a hypothetical thriller described by Magritte (quoted in the play). In Magritte's idea the detective, having failed to capture his master criminal in life, resolves to continue the chase through his prey's dreams.
As a surrealist, we know Magritte's dreams from his paintings. Objects from Magritte's works - a Bowler-Hat suit, an apple, a pipe, a bird, a tree - appear, and Tigram invests each one with case-busting significance, even though, infuriatingly, he does not share his conclusions or his reasoning.
The 'dream' scenario is reinforced as Tigram's investigation is repeatly interrupted by a classic 'actor's nightmare'. He is thrown into performances - the first a piece of avant-garde dance theatre - for which he has done no preparation at all. Later it is a play - a detective thriller about René Magritte.
If the play is ultimately set in Magritte's dreams, one might have expected the production to have more of the qualities of his work: formal and simple, with potent images pregnant with meaning. This feeling did arise in another set of scenes (the play, you might guess, has a large cast) as a group of waiting visitors see imagery from the paintings in the distance. They stand and describe these visions in an environment which, for all its strange mistiness, is notable in the production for actually conveying a sense of location.
For most of the play, rather than enigmatic, the action was merely strange. If the production was, in the surrealist tradition, attempting to avoid shallow psychological realism, this was abandoned without - for the most part - being replaced by anything else. We were left with a lot of fractured dialogue and an overall way of acting that was mechanical even in the expression of emotion. Perhaps a director who was not the author may have found ways to make the story and characters engaging at the same time as exploring and clarifying its rather dry ideas.
Standing out from the mostly student cast, the only actor able to consistently convey something like sincerity (excluding perhaps Mark Kilsby's comic-relief Bishop) was Ralph Johnson as the Detective. It may have helped that he had - almost uniquely among the characters - actual desires and some semblance of a history to work with, even though the exact nature and orgin of Tigram's obsession were sufficiently obscure that it was difficult to actually sympathise.
Mention should be made of the band - not least because because of the sheer novelty of a six-piece musical ensemble accompanying a small-scale theatre show. Guitar-led music, with picked-out chords and chromatic scales, set a gentle, uneasy tone for the production. My one disappointment with them was that when I first heard the hiss or their rainstick I thought it was a fog machine starting up, which, aside from being suitably eerie and taking the edges off a very basic set, would have helped cool down the theatre on a sweltering Wellington evening.
The programme note includes a quote from Magritte:If one looks at a thing with the intention of trying to discover what it means, one ends up no longer seeing the thing itself, but thinking of the question that it has raised.
What The Bowler Hat means seems to me to be unnecessarily obscure, and I didn't find much in this production that was interesting or engaging in itself.