Ari Benjamin Meyers rethinking musical portraiture for Liverpool Biennial

The Playhouse. Photo. c. Brian Roberts

Ari Benjamin Meyers rethinking musical portraiture for Liverpool Biennial

Lord of the Flies was the last thing I saw at the Playhouse. It was ok, but nothing on Educating Rita. The theatre, which has been boarded up for weeks in preparation for Liverpool Biennial, is at its best when the stories told reflect their audience back at themselves.

The venue opened in 1866 as a music hall, and in 1911 relaunched as a reparatory theatre, as it remained until 1999. As a reparatory theatre it probably saw more Liverpool writers and actors come through than anywhere else in the country, standing in as the voice of the city when it couldn’t find its own from time to time.

1999, the year it became part of the Liverpool and Merseyside Theatres Trust with the Everyman, was also the year Liverpool Biennial met the people of the city for the first time. So for the 10th edition of the Biennial, the Playhouse seems a near perfect space to open up to a new kind of performance, and a new kind of music hall.

The history of the building, and the people of the city are very well reflected back at themselves.

The work of Ari Benjamin Meyers works here. His four compositions form the basis for four film portraits of four musicians with ties to the city. In the theatre itself, sat above the stage, it’s an almost uncomfortable experience, slightly too intimate, but necessary to immerse yourself in the nature of the films, all of which are incredibly involving. I’m unfamiliar with any of the four musicians (I’ll likely come to regret admitting that) so I’m discovering them through this work, not trying to compare them to it. The journey from knowing nothing to near absolute trust of the performer is exciting.

But downstairs, revisiting the sheet music the performances were built from, everything makes sense. Everything clicks. Now none of what I’ve listened to seems relevant – like I’ve heard everything they wanted to say, but to really listen to the compositions, it’s the intimate, behind the scene detail that makes it worthwhile.

It’s been years since I’ve read sheet music, a skill I’ve all but lost, but reading back on Bette Bright, you feel the rhythm from upstairs and it fits back in its bars.

For a theatre to hand over to visual arts for such a long stretch of time is incredibly generous, but for visual art to understand and sympathise with the true nature of the theatre, and show it as its best, is a rare gift.

At The Playhouse until 28th October
Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith