Gilbey on Film: The truth about David Hockney

What's the connection between the artist and TOWIE?

David Hockney may have been a greater presence in your life recently than members of your own family. Anyone would think he were the subject of a new show at the Royal Academy or something. But ask yourself this question: what is the connection between Hockney and The Only Way is Essex?

I'm no good at suspense so I'll go ahead and tell you the answer: A Bigger Splash. Jack Hazan's 1974 film about the artist and his friends looks at first like a documentary. Everyone we see appears as themselves, in situations representative of the early-1970s London art scene. But as Hazan explains in an interview included on the BFI's new DVD/Blu-Ray edition of A Bigger Splash, the film contains "very little that's observation. It's not fly-on-the-wall." The late fashion designer Ossie Clark, one of the subjects of Hockney's painting Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (clue: he's not Percy)described it as "truer than the truth." This will not be a radical concept for viewers of TOWIE.

Like Rude Boy, the film about the Clash which Hazan co-directed with his partner David Mingay, A Bigger Splash is a staged work. It was shaped by Hazan over the three years he spent tagging along with Hockney. The director suggested to his subjects situations and conversations for them to play out, or brazenly manipulated the footage he shot -- notably the scene of the artist destroying an unwanted canvas, an unexceptional occurrence in the life of a painter that is transformed here (through the use of Patrick Gowers's deliberately Herrman-esque score) into a sign of psychological turmoil. The picture bills its participants like actors in the opening titles, and even has a "written by" credit shared by Hazan and Mingay. It's not like we can see we've been hoodwinked.

Hazan had begun shooting material when Mingay spotted in Hockney's life the tension between the artist and his former lover and muse, Peter Schlesinger, who had recently left him. Schlesinger, initially grudging until his palm was crossed with silver, became the film's mutely radiant star. He sleepwalks prettily through dreams of Hazan's devising.

Any ambiguity about process is especially pertinent to a movie concerning the genesis of a work of art. Hockney's painting Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) is pieced together before our eyes, from the original photographic studies of the swimming boy to the temporary use of the painter's assistant Mo McDermott (a bedraggled soul for whom Hazan's camera becomes a kind of confidante) as the poolside observer; McDermott is eventually replaced by a study of Schlesinger, painted in Kensington Gardens and then decanted into the canvas. The painting is only one of the elements in the film which is subject to transformation. A studio is built, a gallery is broken apart; relationships are shown in various state of disrepair, accompanied by McDermott's mournful refrain: "When love goes wrong, more than two people suffer."

Through it all runs a curiosity, and at times queasiness, about looking and being looked at. It was the fraught relationship between the figures in Hockney's paintings which first sparked in Hazan the idea of making A Bigger Splash, and it's a friction that survives in the finished film. In Hockney's work, people gaze into the distance, or defiantly out of the canvas at us, but never quite seem to connect with one another. To this complex dynamic Hazan adds another layer by showing the subjects inspecting their own portraits. This, in turn, is varnished by our voyeurism as viewers.

The film's interest in the relationship between the corporeal form and its painted equivalent leads inevitably to the question of how we are changed by being looked at. The boy Tadzio in Death in Venice (Thomas Mann's novella, rather than Visconti's film), adapts his behaviour noticeably when he becomes aware of Von Aschenbach's gaze; his admirer's attention alone is enough to change and even spoil him. A Bigger Splash exhibits some of that same ambivalence. The models are suspended within the canvas like medical specimens. Hazan films Schlesinger standing naked outside a Los Angeles house, hands pressed against the glass, while the two figures inside eat dinner and ignore him. Finally he gives up and dives into their pool -- he has no choice but to retreat back into the watery prison which Hockney's paintbrush has built for him.

Now, I will have to come clean here and admit that I have never seen The Only Way is Essex (or, for that matter, its US parent The Hills). But I am rather minded to give it a whirl after seeing A Bigger Splash and admiring the frisson between the factual and the fabricated. I wonder if the cultural traffic will also run in the other direction, with TOWIE fans helping Hazan's film to make a splash in the DVD charts.

"A Bigger Splash" (BFI) is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on 30 January

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The Print Room’s “Yellowface” scandal reveals deeper problems with British theatre

Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love was picketed on press night. But is it racist, or simply lacking in imagination?

From the legends of Ancient China flow simple truths and mystic sagacity. So suggests the advance publicity for Howard Barker’s new play at the Notting Hill Print Room, inspired allegedly by a Chinese fable. A December casting announcement for In The Depths of Dead Love revealed that a list of characters with names like “Lord Ghang” and “Lady Hasi” would be played by an exclusively white cast. Only the most naïve of producers could have failed to anticipate the storm of protest that would follow.  Last night’s press opening was picketed by a passionate demonstration spilling over the pavements of Notting Hill – a largely dignified affair that grew disappointingly ugly as patrons left the building.

It’s not as if theatreland is a stranger to “yellowface” scandals. As far back as 1990, the mother of all cross-cultural standoffs emerged when American Equity attempted to block Cameron Mackintosh from bringing his latest London hit, Miss Saigon, to Broadway unless he recast the role of the character of the Engineer, played in London by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s defenders pointed out that the character was mixed-race, rather than strictly East Asian; his critics noted that he had still opened the London run wearing prosthetic eyelids and bronzing cream.

The protests marked a watershed, making visible the obstacles faced by East Asian actors. (Often blocked from “white” roles, often beaten to “East Asian” roles by white stars.) Yet controversies have continued to hit the headlines: the Edinburgh Fringe is a frequent flashpoint. In late 2015, a production of The Mikado was cancelled in New York after being deluged with protests; the producers denounced it as censorship. In 2014, the National Theatre in London staged Yellowface, a witty, self-deprecating piece by David Henry Hwang, inspired by the protests Hwang himself had led against Miss Saigon. After such a high-profile production, few theatre makers in London could claim ignorance of the issues at stake when white actors take Chinese names.

Against this background, The Print Room screwed up badly. A statement issued in December only entrenched the public image of Barker’s play as an Orientalist fantasy: “In the Depths of Dead Love is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese…  The allusions are intended to signify “not here, not now, not in any actual real ‘where’ ” and the production, set, costumes and dialogue follow this cue of ‘no place.’”

In effect, this gives us white actors playing universal types, rendered distant by their exotic names. It’s perfectly reasonable to set mythic tales in a universal landscape; what’s bizarre is to see any cast charged with representing the universal when all of them are white. As Yo Zushi argued in a New Statesman piece in 2015, critics of “cultural appropriation” too often “insist that culture, by its nature a communally forged and ever-changing project, should belong to specific peoples and not to all”. It would be absurd to argue that no British playwright should draw inspiration from Chinese literature. But watch an all-white cast stand in for universal experience on stage, and it start to look like British theatre belongs to one specific people: white people.

The irony is that In The Depths of Dead Love turns out otherwise to be a sensitive meditation on the limits of empathy. A poet is exiled from the city for sedition – or is it decadence? – and living in a wasteland, he purchases a bottomless well, charging suicides for entrance. The prevaricating Lady Hasi, played by the perennially impressive Stella Gonet, is a daily visitor. Her frustrated husband (William Chubb) commands the poet to break the cycle and “shove” her in. So begins a gentle mediation on mortality, language and intent.

The play does indeed evoke a universal landcape. Justin Nardella’s design is a simple series of ellipses: a well, a moon, a vast mirror. It’s effective, if imperfectly executed – this ‘bottomless well’ is quite clearly not bottomless. As the poet “Chin”, James Clyde injects potentially baggy monologues with wit and verve; fresh from playing opposite Glenda Jackson’s King LearChubb brings his usual mix of menace and linguistic precision. The mediations on poetic exile owe as much to Ovid’s Tristia and Ex Ponto as they do to Chinese source material. If only Barker’s characters didn’t keep emphasising each other’s oriental names as some kind of cheaply Brechtian, exoticising effect.

The righteousness of thesps on the war path is often blinkered: perhaps the protestors outside the Print Room last night would do well to see the play in order to engage with it fully. Keep attacking white writers when they acknowledge their Asian influences, and we’ll see real appropriation – Barker would have faced less protest had he ripped off the storyline wholesale and used it to inspire an ‘original’ work set in a Dignitas clinic.

I might even describe this slight work as the best thing I’ve ever seen at the Print Room, which is part of the larger problem. A personal project run by the director wife of a wealthy banker, the Print Room is well insulated against both commercial and critical failure. There’s no more bizarre sense of artistic stagnation like watching a expensive lighting rig, as in Genet’s Deathwatch, illuminate a few punters sprinkled in an empty auditorium. Last month's atrocious The Tempest starred Kristin Winters, the daughter of founder-director Anda Winters, a talented actress who deserves to be employed somewhere her mother isn't the impresario. 

Private philanthropy is essential to the future of theatre. It requires clear separation between patrons and artistic decisions, with a diversity of funding sources. But when theatres are run as vanity projects, they often lose touch with the energy and concerns of the arts world as a whole. 

The Print Room could do with making better friends in theatreland. An updated statement this week, while apologising profoundly for previous insensitivies, nonetheless hit out at Equity UK for “misrepresenting and misquoting” it. A series of departures has marked the Print Room’s tenure: among them Winter’s original co-founder, the respected director Lucy Bailey and the Print Room’s previous PR team amongst them, who left abruptly during the press run for A Lovely Sunday At Creve Coeur.

If there’s hope for the venue, it’s that In The Depths of Dead Love, which Winters developed closely with Howard Barker, shows the first glimpses of a real artistic mission. Unfortunately, it's a lily-white one.