Watching Chatterton unfold at Trinity Cathedral last week, I kept thinking about a short story I once read about two dense, fledgling writers who misinterpret the axiom about how good artists borrow and great artists steal. They conclude that the only way to become great artists is to first become professional thieves. As in, like, burglars.
No such dummies populate Chatterton, but its plot also wrestles with questions about originality, inspiration, plagiarism, forgery, ghostwriting, and the philosophical headaches that ensue when you try to adjudicate authenticity in art.
The conflict in Chatterton revolves around the legacy of 18th-century poet Thomas Chatterton, who died by suicide at 17 and was later discovered to be the author of works attributed to a non-existent 15th-century monk. He subsequently became a tragic figure of inspiration for a number of works that followed his death: an 1835 play, an 1856 painting of his death, an 1876 opera, a 1987 book by Peter Ackroyd, and finally, this stage rendition based on Ackroyd's book.
If you've heard anything about this performance — staged by Quantum Theatre, created and directed by Karla Boos — it's probably not the historical housekeeping above, but the immersive, mobile storytelling of the production. Here, after sipping cider in the pews for a few minutes, audience members are whisked away by one of three tour guides identified by a typewriter, quill, or paintbrush, and led on three distinct storylines that wind through the church.
I spent the night in "modern times" with the typewriter crew and Tony Bingham's Charles Wychwood, a struggling poet living with his wife and child in a neat little London apartment. A chance encounter leads Wychwood into a Thomas Chatterton-based mystery, in which answers are being revealed to fellow audience members in other parts of the church. Though there's frustration to that incomplete puzzle, our storyline (and I imagine the other two) didn't lack for exciting, satisfying twists and turns.
Trying to explain the details of the plot would be pointless, but audience members should know the immersive aspect of the show isn't just for the sake of shaking things up. Yeah, it's a little tiring and awkward at times, but the effect works.
This is a story about how people relate to an artist through their work, how they fill in missing details and project their own baggage to make sense of the unknown. The intimacy and the immediacy of being so physically close to the performance — the actors' gaits and breathing, the smell of wood and old paper that is for some reason only found in churches — echoes the characters' efforts to make sense of Chatterton. They have a book and a painting of a dead guy to go on; we have living human beings expressing themselves inches from our faces, and we're still not much closer to the truth.