Neil Bartlett And Robin Whitmore, A Vision Of Love Revealed In Sleep

Battersea Arts Centre

“Poor little devil, what will become of him?” asked Dante Gabriel Rossetti about Simeon Solomon, in his youth a celebrated painter and socialite, later the forgotten man of Pre-Raphaelitism, an alcoholic who sold matches, worked as a sidewalk artist, and died in a London workhouse. After the police caught him having intercourse with a man twice his age in a public urinal, Solomon’s circumstances grew steadily worse until his death 32 years later, in 1905. “My behavior has been perfectly disgraceful,” he admitted cheerfully when he was sentenced. Yet nothing resembling an apology ever passed his lips. Instead, he continued to base his art on fantasies woven around his affairs with teenage boys and decided to reject the society that had already rejected him. Interviewed late in life by reporters who could see the wretchedness of the workhouse, Solomon, lice-ridden and half-starved, refused to tell them what they wanted. “I like it here," he said. It’s so central.”

On three staircases and the colonnaded marble terrace of a Victorian building filled with garbage, scrap metal, fake paintings, church candles, and smoke—an environment designed by Robin Whitmore for the performance piece A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep—a nude figure resembling both Solomon and the swooning youths he painted undertook the dramatized equivalent of a post-Structuralist analysis. His text was one that few in the audience were likely to have read: Solomon’s prose poem “A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep” (1871). This solo performance by Neil Bartlett (a work-in-progress, the first phase of his theater piece for five performers) involved a complex rhetorical strategy consisting of equal parts lecture, recitation, comedy routine, mime, and drag act. By varying his tone of voice, demeanor, and even his persona–i.e., assuming the identities of other historical and literary characters, such as Marie Lloyd, the smuttiest and most popular of British music-hall comediennes, and Miss Wade, the desolate but uncompromising lesbian from Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, or acting out vignettes of present-day gay life under the threat of AIDS—he gradually comes to terms with Solomon’s ecstatic idealism, flamboyant eroticism, and obsession with brave young warriors.

Although AIDS is not the real subtext for Bartlett’s interpretation of Solomon’s poem, it provides the stimulus for recognizing both the significance of the text and the life-style of a forgotten, disreputable, unrepentant, flagrantly happy painter who made himself immune to starvation, condescension, neglect, and brutality for more than 30 years. So far, most gay men in Britain have felt unable to acknowledge the seriousness of the crisis that faces them and to engage in full-scale revision of their culture and attitudes. A Vision begins to confront the mixture of sadness, anger, and confusion they are feeling. All of these are reflected in Bartlett’s shifting mode of address, inside and outside characters and issues at the same time, ranging from apology to denunciation, from camp exchanges with the audience to a calm report by a single man of returning home in the early morning, listening to the messages on his answering-machine, and cooking a meal for one. Not only are conventional acting techniques rejected, but the performer’s very ability to transcend traditional modes of persuasion becomes a measure of his veracity and the truth of the evidence he presents. What we are left with at the end is no longer a palimpsest but a lone, naked man facing a problematic future in a Britain where homosexuals are reviled as never before in his lifetime. He is not asking for help; he is demanding respect.

Stuart Morgan