Saturday, April 13, 2019


The Walls That Talk. 

Devised and directed by Katie Cawthorne with Jett Chudleigh, Ross Walker and Christopher Carroll. Original composition and sound design Jonah Myers. Curated by Emily Casey.  National Portrait Gallery. April 12-14 at 4 and 5 p.m. Bookings:

Jett Radleigh, Christopher Carroll and Ross Walker
 in The Walls That Talk at the National Portrait Gallery

Is the true meaning of art in the eye and the heart of the beholder? There are text panels and artists’ statements to guide the gallery viewer through an exhibition, but do they truly define the experience? They are questions that ran through my mind as I watched the twenty minute performance The Walls That Talk in the temporary exhibition space of the National Portrait Gallery.
The Walls That Talk is an ingenious performance piece, performed as promenade theatre in the vacated temporary exhibition space after the dismantling of the National Photographic Prize exhibition. The walls are a stark white and the space is eerily empty of any portraits. The public spaces are still accessible but shortly the gallery will close for six months and The Walls That Talk signifies a farewell performance to invite audiences to follow three actors through the space on their journey of discovery.
 They stand at first tentatively at the entrance to the gallery, anxiously peering into the bare room, novices to the bewildering world of art, and yet curious visitors, imagining the stories behind the works displayed upon the walls. One of the characters is pushed through the doorway, and the others tentatively follow, imitating the actions of the first cautious explorer. Each person reads the text panel and lets out an exclamation of realization. Is it feigned, or is it real? Is it merely in response to the facts revealed on the text panel, or is it the impression gained from the portrait that gazes back?
With the audience following, they pass through the various spaces within the exhibition area, gradually becoming more and more drawn into their strange epiphany, Bodies transmogrify, becoming before the audience’s eyes portraits in time and space. Actor Chris Carroll strikes a regal pose. Another actor Jett Chudleigh signifies a blue train spread across the floor. Fellow actor Ross Walker indicates a silken sash. In a performance largely void of dialogue and chiefly accompanied by  Jonah Myer’s atmospheric composition, I seem to catch the word Danish. Could this be the portrait of Pincess Mary, or is it a regal figure slowly transformed to a kneeling figure? Carroll moves to another wall to take up a slim figure with fixed gaze upon the viewer Radleigh, who physically transforms the character before our eyes, arousing a fresh perspective or a story of our own making.  The works overwhelm, enveloping the actors who are drawn into the art, images upon the walls or sculptures moulded into the expectation of the viewer, an art work of the private imagination.

Then of course that is only one interpretation  inspired by the actor’s abstract personification. Art is not photography, even though photography can be art. A portrait is not the person, nor is the person the portraitist’s subject. The intrepid visitors who stumbled blindly through the door have entered the world of their imagination and the audience submits to the wonder of their discovery.
Director Katie Cawthorne is the Svengali of physical theatre, painting her images in physical form, stretching the imagination and encouraging her audience to travel through the space, viewing the work from different perspectives, imagining different characters and different stories and letting the walls talk in the silence of their space. Her three actors are skilfully complicit in the moving gallery of images. Expressive and flexible, their bodies morph into a moment that sparks the imagination, makes us think and possibly provides the answers to the questions that persist as we are drawn into the artist’s world.