There have been a number of plays that have dealt with the importamce of ‘art’ and what the viewer brings to its ‘meaning’. Sitting – which is written by Katherine Parkinson and directed by Sarah Bedi – takes a different tact, focusing on the relationship the ‘sitter’ has with the person painting them. Playing the three ‘subjects’ of ‘John’, Luke (Mark Weinman), Mary (Hayley Jayne Standing) and Cassandra (Poppy Fardell) sit in the art studio within his family home, while his wife busies herself in the garden. The ‘posers’ stay onstage throughout, but even though their conversations sometimes overlap – alluding to a sychronicity of circumstances – they are ‘present’ at different points in time.
When he isn’t working as a life model, Luke works as a ‘painter’ of a different sort – a decorator. This also happens to be his first time ‘sitting’ for John. Mary, meanwhile, has a long history of modelling at this premises. Intially ‘sitting’ for John when her daughter was young, Mary now pays him to paint her. And just like the ‘master painters’ of old, the boundary between painter and painting blurs…
Then there’s Cassandra. Having a liberal relationship ‘the truth’, she’s found that other people are more perturbed by her ‘laissez-faire‘ attitude to ‘hard facts’ than she is. All three of the models find talking to John carthartic and by opening up to this ‘stranger’, they can talk about things that no one else would understand or be prone to judgment.
As Cassandra, Fardell is confident, direct and suggestive, imbuing even the act of dressing up for life drawing as a way to reinvent herself. Perhaps that’s why she’s so drawn to acting… While some people aren’t as appreciatve with her ‘creativity’ with the truth, we hear how Cassandra’s mother has aways offered her unconditional love and support, and not tried to change her.
Family relationships have also had a profound effect on Standing’s Mary. However, in her case we see how famlial female relationships can be a double-edged sword – and that we always hurt the ones we love.
Ambivalence and misgivings also shape Luke’s conversation about his marriage. While he has the lion’s share of the funniest lines (often delivered in a wry, observational fashion) they all stem from his deeply unhappy marriage. But despite the marital friction and difficulties, Luke is determined to stick it through – a conscious decision to not be like his absentee father, for whom he has never found closure.
In all three cases, the sitters relish being ‘seen’ for who they are, and the act of painting itself is the icing in the cake. The play’s denoument shows there’s more in common with the subjects than at first appears. However, in some ways the revelations are not ‘needed’, as the respective character arcs are satisfying in their own right. While Arcola’s Studio 2 is intimate at the best of times, the ‘one-on-one’ relationship that the characters have with the audience adds to the rapport that they are supposed to share with John and why their ‘relationship’ is so special for them…
© Michael Davis 2019
Sitting runs at Arcola Theatre until 11th May.