Drawn and lugubrious underneath a hat decorated with a sunflower, laying out a monotone anecdote on top of the tinkling and the drone of a harmonium, Ivor Cutler was a perfectly unique artist who paradoxically inspired so many perfectly unique artists who came after him. The po-faced mayhem of Monty Python; The Beatles’ seaside-surrealism; the rough, everyday spirituals of Daniel Johnston; the ‘quiet heroism of unwitnessed fucking lives’ of Daniel Kitson; Simon Munnery’s hats.
Cutler recorded more John Peel sessions than any artist other than The Fall, and his quietly inspired poetry, music and story-telling wove themselves into the fabric of British eccentricity and folk art. He is a hand-stitched curmudgeon, a perpetual outsider who felt born again when he arrived in London in his early 30’s, and spent the rest of his life chronicling those first decades in Scotland with a sardonic eye, and spinning stories of love, the magnificent and the neglected.
Vanishing Point, in association with the National Theatre of Scotland, have plunged into Cutler’s strange and ordinary life to produce a part-tribute, part-biopic that’s both a poignant celebration of his life and the ideal primer to his work for the uninitiated. The Beautiful Cosmos swims through the Cutler-verse with affection and sensitivity, it may sand down the occasional rough edge and keep one eye permanently on the Greatest Hits, but these are flaws well worth indulging in a gorgeously presented and uncannily performed production.
Director and creator Matthew Lenton frames Cutler’s life as a process of delicate archaeology and discovery, as performer Sandy Grierson pays a visit to Phyllis King, Cutler’s longtime artistic and sexual collaborator, to find out more about the artist and the man he is soon to play. We see him try and fail to contain a fannish enthusiasm for significant addresses and dates, try-on his flourishing Cutler voice for the woman who made it the background of her life, even sit at Cutler’s own harmonium and try a few wheezing notes.
We see Grierson grow into the role of Cutler as Cutler grows into his own persona – as he shakes off a tough childhood and escapes the tawse-slinging role of a post-war primary school teacher. Grierson’s Cutler is as out of step with the world in his workaday life as his work is with the work of his peers, and whether or not that’s strictly accurate it feels wholly appropriate to a man who declared himself, with not a little pride but perhaps a little sadness, ‘never knowingly understood.’ Grierson’s performance is remarkable, both more than an impersonation, in that at times we feel we are genuinely in Cutler’s presence, and self-consciously less, in that no attempt is made to exclude or excuse the faltering towards truth and the assumption and removal of the role’s physical and dramatic properties.
Less obvious, but vital is the work by Elicia Daly as King. She performs a dual role for Grierson, she is his companion in his life as Cutler, and his aide in the creation of the character. She delivers a few of King’s own poems, more conventional than Cutler’s but with twinkling insights that make it clear how these two peculiar souls found each other and why they clung together. The Beautiful Cosmos comes to a heart-breaking dying-off when the two meet in Cutler’s last years, as he sits in a fog of dementia in a care home. A momentary misunderstanding leads King to presume that Cutler is waiting for a mistress to arrive – her dam of characteristic calm calm holding back a visible, audible torrent of grief. It’s eye-prickingly painful, but in assuming this bearing, Daly hints at the darker corners of Cutler’s character that, elsewhere, Lenton chooses to ignore.
Cutler has so many obvious and adorable foibles (his hatred of loud noises, leading him to join the Noise Abatement Society and request that all audiences applaud at 50% their usual volume) that it’s tempting to ignore those that suggest the depths of emotion behind the Cutler persona. There are no real mentions of Cutler’s wife and his two children. His relationship with King is never probed, though Lenton commendably integrates the explanation of this into the text. Moreso than other entertainers of the period, more, in fact, like the ‘living sculptures’ Gilbert and George, this (literal) character armour keeps the ‘real’ Cutler well hidden, and though it may have been a painful process, there is a sense that it would have been well within this production’s capabilities to attempt a few more glances beneath the Wizard’s screen.
So there are omissions. There are kind lapses of memory or completeness. But Cutler the artist surely earned some kind of immunity from muck-raking. And as a production, The Beautiful Cosmos… certainly does. Re-enactments of Cutler classics such as ‘Looking for Truth With a Pin’ are joined by grand new arrangements by musical director James Fortune and a full onstage band. Far from crushing the delicate and simple tunes Cutler employed, they are capable of lifting numbers to impressive and heart-soaring new heights. They reveal Cutler’s deft use of melody, his ability to match a catchy chorus with a strange and stuttering lyric. Where up-tempo numbers hard back to the work of his contemporary musical humourists like Tom Lehrer, other, sparser constructions are practically Beckettian. Cutler himself could be a Scottish Molloy, ensconced in his flat, despising adjectives, perturbed and obsessed by objects like crumb-trays and their corresponding, treacherous signifiers.
Never forgetting that Cutler’s primary skill was humour, never believing for a second that humour was excluded by profundity, there is plenty of both in Lenton’s handsome production. Kai Fischer’s set and lighting provide occasional, surprising pools of beauty, like the image of Cutler rowing through the blackness of the universe, or a vase of sunflowers unfolding their petals to the dawn.
As well as being terrific work from Vanishing Point, The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler is also a timely reminder, as Rufus Norris takes the reins proper of our own National Theatre, of how playful and ambitious the National Theatre of Scotland has proven (and continues) to be. Their support of this production, essentially a life in music of a much-loved but wilfully obtuse ‘surrealist folk’ artist, is cheering and righteous. Whether Cutler’s sonorous voice is already familiar to you, it’s an encounter with a mind that could compress all ecstasies into a cup of tea and a breakfast roll spent with someone he loved, and will send you tumbling inexorably down the rabbit hole of his discography.