Colour is so much more than just a noun. It is the element of art produced when light, striking an object, is reflected back into the eye. There are three properties to colour. First is hue, which is really just the name we give to colour, such as red, yellow, or blue. Secondly it is intensity, which is a nod to its character. For example, we may describe the colour red specifically as, “cadmium red,” which is a characteristic brilliant red with steadfast permanence and tinted clout. The third and final property is its value, which relates to the degree of lightness or darkness, or shade or tint.
There is also a fourth property, which is what I Send You this Cadmium Red is really all about. It’s a kind of synaesthesia-like approach to colour that makes this production something special.
Last Wednesday night marked a return of I Send You this Cadmium Red, which originally ran at Canstage in 2011. Staged by Daniel Brooks and conducted by Artistic Director Andrew Burashko, the musical play is based on a series of letters, notes, novellas, and drawings exchanged by poet/art critic John Berger, played by John Fitzgerald Jay, and painter/filmmaker John Christie, played by Julian Richings, between 1997 and 1999. The text is filled with evocatively poetic prose, through which the two men discuss the meaning of colour, and the emotions and memories it evokes.
The production is rooted in the tête-à-tête between two men who exchange deeply personal meditations on colour. The result is a visual odyssey, which ranges from the blue of Yves Klein, to the industrial brown anti-rust paint of Joseph Beuys’ Braunkreuz.
Set to a score by Victoria BC-based composer Gavin Bryars, the work is a type of staged radio play that incorporates speech and music, over an animated video backdrop. What might have otherwise been a work of competing creative interests, resulted in elements combining in an all-embracing spectacle of both emotional and intellectual power.
The music is written in a minimalist style, and is comprised of electric guitar (Rob Piltch), viola (Carolyn Blackwell), bass clarinet (Robert Carli), and double bass (Joseph Phillips), and conducted by Andrew Burashko; the Art of Time Ensemble.
Bryars, a bassist himself, has always been a master of setting moods with the simplest of harmonies, which move about the stage like haunted apparitions from the underworld. The score features hues that gradually shift from foreground to background, much like a magnifying glass over a watercolour canvas.
Berger, played by Julian Richings was the favourite of the night. His delivery was conversationally articulated and included well-timed commas that helped propel the speech as a musical element. There was a subtle sense of humour to the character, which made him not only fascinating to listen to, but entertaining as well.
John Fitzgerald Jay’s was a much more down to earth delivery, and embodied the direct tone of his letters. The discourse between the two was magical, and once one had finished reading their letter, a sense of anticipation grew as one wondered how the other might respond. It wasn’t a one-ups-man-ship as it could have been, but a truly intimate conversation between men whose relationship with colour penetrated deep within the fabric of their lives.
Just as the show began, it closed with methodically painted brush strokes on the dual panel above the actors and ensemble. The stage light glowed red, and washed over the audience, who was left pondering the true depth of colour.
I will never see the colour red in the same way again, and it is my hope that one day I might send them a single swatch of colour, and wait for their response.