An “incident”, a war, a spat of city hall proportions. The rejection of Frances Hodgkins’s modernist painting Pleasure Garden by the Robert McDougall Art Gallery in 1949 has come to represent all things reactionary about attitudes to contemporary art in mid-century New Zealand and Christchurch in particular. But a musical?
Under the direction of Melanie Camp, against a painterly backdrop of historic Christchurch, scriptwriter Stuart Hoar and composer Philip Norman use song, dance and feisty dialogue to turn this damning art argument, described by EH McCormick as the turning point in the struggle by New Zealand art “to free itself from the bondage of timid prejudice and sterile convention”, into a cheerful send-up of cultural stuffiness, public witlessness (“Tell us who deserves our praise,” the hatted congregation sing to the tune of God Defend New Zealand) and critical superciliousness.
Juliet Reynolds-Midgley’s Hodgkins is in fine fettle as an exasperated ghost – the artist died in 1947 – at the shoulder of well-meaning journalist Scotty (Alex Walker). Supporting her work is philanthropist Margaret Frankel, played with perfectly tuned righteousness by Delia Hannah, and lawyer Alan Brassington, bruising for a cultural war, played with charming bravado by Robert Tripe.
Court Theatre chief executive Philip Aldridge takes to the stage as a wonderfully doughty William Baverstock, secretary of the Canterbury Society of Arts and council adviser, determined to block the purchase of what he considers an inferior work by the Britain-domiciled artist (it was finally accepted in 1951), while Amy Straker gives a compelling performance as Hodgkins’s repressed sister Isabel.
Although the flashbacks into Hodgkins’s personal life slow the pace (but showcase Juno Pyun’s stunning violin playing), as a high-energy assessment of the art gift that nearly wasn’t The Great Art War is delivered with all the archetypal comic brio of the Court Theatre.
THE GREAT ART WAR, script and lyrics by Stuart Hoar, music and lyrics by Philip Norman, directed by Melanie Camp, commissioned by the Canterbury Arts and Heritage Trust, Court Theatre, Christchurch, until September 14, as part of the Christchurch Arts Festival.