Instead, the 70-minute evening allows two superb Irish actors, Dermot Crowley and Dearbhla Molloy, the opportunity to stand at lecterns and animatedly interpret Paul Durcan’s poems based on paintings in London’s National Gallery. And by the time the pair finishes the unusual work, audiences will have learned something about art, and the two actors will have had a field day doing it.
Although thousands of art lovers gallop through the National Gallery every day, Durcan may be the only one who’s ever gazed at its knockout collection and then fantasized in print on what the figures in the portraits are thinking as they gaze back — or what characters associated with the paintings, such as Vincent van Gogh’s mother, have to say.
Sometimes, the words are decidedly anachronistic. In the poem he conjures after scrutinizing Thomas Gainsborough’s “Painter’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly,” he has the beloved 18th-century portraitist confide that, while content to enjoy the countryside, he will make the trek to London for a Lucian Freud exhibit.
After looking at John Singer Sargent’s “Lord Ribblesdale,” Durcan has the fellow deny he’s as haughty as shown, but really prefers to run naked through the woods near his home. On Philippe de Champaigne’s sumptuous “Cardinal Richelieu” canvas, Durcan hears the man chat to his mother about her pride in his station but admits he doesn’t like giving up drinking and feels like “a 17th-century Teddy Boy” (which is actually 20th-century English slang for a ruffian affecting Edwardian dress.)
In Adriaen van der Werff’s “Rest on the Flight to Egypt,” Durcan has Mary report her son died of AIDS. In Francois-Hubert Drouais’ “Madame de Pompadour,” the gorgeously dressed woman talks of loneliness, perhaps a result of her being somewhat shunted aside when she reached her forties.
Throughout the evening, Crowley and Molloy are inspired not so much to read these dramatic poems, but to perform them as a succession of vivid vignettes. For example, they become holier-than-thou when discoursing as Mr. and Mrs. in Jan van Eyck’s “The Arnolfini Marriage,” where she’s giving him her hand, and are particularly amusing playing Delilah and the barber she’s called in for Peter Paul Rubens’ “Samson and Delilah.
In addition, Crowley and Molloy give background info on the paintings that even National Gallery regulars may not know. For example, they tell us that van Eyck made his painting a year after Mrs. Arnolfini died; that Madame de Pompadour’s rather small head is inserted posthumously into her extravagant surroundings; and that the young woman in Alessio Baldovinetti’s 15th-century “Portrait of a Lady in Yellow” is presented in profile because a full face study of someone her age was considered too daring.
The only drawback to this guided tour is that the reproductions projected are often too large or too small in relation to the real thing. But that’s a minor point about some major masterpieces as they’re creatively re-imagined here.