Teach us to care and not to care

Lisa Hammond gets audiences thinking about disability.

The British public, long used to arbitrating on the presence or otherwise of Talent and X Factor, has now been given a say in the devising of a show. Two actors went out on to the streets with a microphone and canvassed opinion on what their forthcoming play should be about, and the resulting performance is the wryly titled No Idea. It should be stated, for the record, that one of the performers, Lisa Hammond, is what the Americans preciously call a "little person"; her partner Rachael Spence is of average height.

The pair have a knack of making each line appear box-fresh. As they present this show about a show, and road-test some of the public's ideas, there's an off-the-cuff feel of live improvisation which is actually more akin to the well-honed grooves of stand-up: this play has been carefully crafted, under the direction of Improbable's Lee Simpson.

The public's suggestions are a springboard all right, but not in the direction the public intended. In the end, the laughs are on the unsuspecting contributors, and the show turns out to be very much about them and their perceptions of Hammond and Spence. When the actors play around with gilt frames, creating objectifying snapshots of various body parts, one senses that they were not the only ones to have been "framed".

Even as you wince, you can't help but feel a teensy bit sorry for the hapless interviewees. Their accents and agendas alike are ruthlessly and, it must be said, hilariously nailed by the two performers. One passer-by gives them deeply patronising advice about starting out with free performances. In small spaces. Another simply can't imagine two women doing a comedy and being funny. A group of youngsters suggest they beef up their flimsy act with big-hitters like Davina, Beyoncé or Phil from EastEnders.

And the tricksiest of all the tricksy issues is the public's response to the pint-sized pachyderm in the room, Hammond's disability. One assumption in particular tapped a well of frustration in Hammond, which is that an undersized person must be possessed of an outsized personality. It's what she calls the "Uh-oh, Here Comes Trouble!" syndrome.

Cheeky girls

Notably there are comments about her "cheeky, cheeky face", which the pair work up into a ribald music-hall number and push into the realms of savagely funny bad taste ("See the smile/of a paedophile . . ."). When, later in the show, Hammond fesses up to the misdemeanours that her condition enables her to get away with, and notes that we, the public, accept that "the freaky girl does freaky things", we revise our laughter at her song. Would it have been bearable, let alone funny, if sung by someone of standard size?

Enthusiastic lip-service is paid to Hammond being the star of the show, but interestingly, agonisingly, when the public is asked to string a storyline together, she is given nothing whatsoever to do. It would seem we are loath to visit any kind of mishap on her, to double-dose her with misfortune. And we certainly don't see her as a romantic lead. So while Spence frets that she'll be cast in "some kind of ensemble capacity", or as a "chorus tramp", she actually gets all the action.

While she gets to do a fabulously clownish "falling in love" montage of picnics, photo-booth capers and roller-coaster rides, Hammond is given the task of staying in the apartment, making a phone call. "I observe," she says acidly, "that I have had fuck all to do in that story."

Though the show points up our hypocrisy and confusion with regard to the "dwarf or midget", it is also a warm celebration of the possible relationship between able-bodied and disabled, and the friendship between Spence and Hammond is held up as an example of best practice. Teach us to care and not to care, as T S Eliot would have it, and Spence strikes pretty much that balance towards her diminutive partner, finishing the show with a rousing chorus of "I Don't Give a Shit About You!".

The yen towards didacticism -- all that messing around with body building-blocks can feel like a theatre-in-education workshop -- is playfully clocked, and the show just manages to pull back from the preachy. "We want entertaining, not cripples complaining!" larks Hammond, in the nick of time.

Crucially, I left the theatre thinking about her stature, but as a performer, not as a person. And humming "Cheeky face, cheeky face . . ."

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The paintings designed to better sculpture

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour, as a new exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery shows.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle