Outlandish regiment

Imagine Lord Leighton tussling with Damien Hirst sponsored by Arnold Schwarzenegger... John Sessions has. By Kevin Jackson
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The Independent Culture
Look on this cast-list, and boggle - it works best if you imagine the credits being read in a booming Los Angelean basso profundo, punctuated with blaring orchestral chords of the John Williams school: Arnold Schwarzenegger is Prince Albert! (crash!), Robert De Niro is Delacroix! (crash!), Sean Connery is Millais! (crash!), Al Pacino is Dante Gabriel Rossetti! (crash!), Anthony Hopkins is Holman Hunt! (crash!), Joe Pesci is Gericault! (crash!), and Rab C Nesbitt is Thomas Carlyle! (sickening crash!).

Though it may sound like the nightmare of an unusually literate studio mogul who has been partaking a trifle too freely of Colombian light refreshments, this outlandish regiment of players is not merely real (well, sort of) but about to arrive on our shores, for these are the stars who will be impersonated for Leighton Live, a one-man show at the Royal Academy about the eminent Victorian and his times by the most effortlessly protean comedian and actor of our own time, John Sessions.

Ideas for most of the supporting cast arrived fairly easily, Sessions says. The real struggle for inspiration came with his central character: "Leighton himself was the big hunt. Until about three weeks ago he was Roger Moore, which as a parallel is about right [adopts deep, mellow 007 murmur] - that kind of smooth, affable urbanity, hmmm, ye-eas - but then I started to think that he needed to have a certain amount of cuteness, so even though I don't look like Hugh Grant, and I'm not ill enough to believe that I do, I can suggest Hugh's stammering, stuttering manner, with lots of banging about of the hair and being the boy found with the pornographic magazine under his desk at Eton..."

Other vivid actorly talents pressed into service for Sessions's mini- extravaganza are Tommy Cooper as George Eliot, Arthur Lowe as Frith, Clive Dunn as GF Watts, Peter O'Toole as Oscar Wilde, Gregory Peck as Henry James, Dirk Bogarde as Ruskin, Felicity Kendall as Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Alan Rickman as the somewhat less familiar Edward von Steinle, the German professor at the Stadel Institute and member of the Nazarene school who exerted a profound influence on the young Leighton, and who "is turning out very nicely in rehearsals as [puckered, sardonic, terrorist-in-Die- Hard drawl] "a really... really... unpleasant... person..."

In shorr, Leighton Live is a show very much in the spirit of Sessions's earlier one-man enterprises, Napoleon and Travelling Tales. Part of the fun is its mad incongruity - Pesci and De Niro going at it like Good- Fellas over minor points of aesthetic principle - and part is the comic frisson of recognising real-life counterparts across the ages. Thus, Sessions's Thomas Huxley is played by David Attenborough; Paul Raymond, purveyor of female flesh to our own times, becomes the rather more genteel soft- porn merchant Alma-Tadema; the dandyish Whistler is played with infinitely weary, sighing expatriate superiority by Gore Vidal; and Thackeray is Anthony Burgess. Sessions, like all citizens of taste and discrimination, is a great Burgess fan, and over the years has managed to hone the unmistakable Burgessian squint, the pedantic hand gestures and the gruff syncopations of utterance to a fine point of verisimilitude. Thus "Graham Greene," Sessions improvises on request, "is not exactly a great writer, he's a very good writer, but strictly a... journeyman in his use of language. His language use, with very much an... appropriated Catholicism, not a Catholicism I would generally agree with..."

Throw in Edward Fox as Richard Burton (the traveller and orientalist, that is, not the Welsh actor) and Alan Clark as Mephistopheles, not to mention a fleeting cameo by Damien Hirst, and the result is a celebrity bash so supercharged with florid personalities that the comparatively pallid figure of Leighton himself is in danger of being swamped. Sessions, who admits that "frankly, a lot of Leighton's work isn't much to my taste", concedes the difficulties:

"It's hard to bring Leighton to life: he was very much a man of propriety, a man of surface, a man of great urbanity. I'm reading the Henry James story at the moment which is based on him: The Private Life, a sort of ghost story of the 1890s about an English nobleman who is so much a matter of surfaces that when he isn't perceived he quite literally isn't there. I've tried to play that thing of there not being an awful lot going on inside Fred, particularly as regards his emotional non-commitment, his sexual non-commitment...

"Tom Phillips [the painter] has said that anyone who was unmarried and who went off for extended holidays in Morocco was probably pulling up little boys' djellabahs and all the rest of it, but ultimately that's speculation, and Leighton certainly wasn't getting up to the sort of things that Oscar Wilde was getting up to. Fred's propriety went right through to the middle. Even the people who purported to know him well, like Watts and Millais, never really knew him. He never let the guard down, but was one of those people who are always, rather frighteningly, on - though his form of being on was not especially energetic, not like Dickens, with that incredible mania, but affable, serene, the public artist, the great figure, the man committed to his art, and I don't think it would take too much cynicism to assume he was a bit of a bore."

This is a point on which quite a few recent art critics would appear to agree, both as a judgement on Leighton's personality and on his work, too. Sessions, who, despite the freewheeling nature of his dramatisation, has attempted to keep one foot in historical and critical reality by way of some serious reading around the subject, does interpolate or hint at some critical readings of his own into the show.

On the negative side: "Leighton goes to the classical world like a member of the Plymouth Brethren would go to church, with a terrible frigid seriousness. His figures belong to a strange, deracinated Hellenic theme park; there's an awful aridity about them." On the positive: "He did a mean arse, and he did a lot of arses, and I draw attention to this: Disraeli, played by Tom Stoppard, comes in at one point and is shocked by this huge American footballer's bum jumping off the canvas at you in Leighton's Hercules Wrestling With Death for the Body of Alcestis..."

Fundamental criticisms of this kind apart, Sessions also hopes to make one or two other serious points in the midst of the japery: "One of them is that he discovers the need to live too late - very Henry James, very Ambassadors. It's only in the last four or five years of his life that Leighton is beginning to throw off the shackles a bit: his paintings become very sensuous and pagan, really. He got into sun worship. Return of Pesephone... and so on, it's all very fertility-based. The Golden Bough, you see, was already coming out in the early 1890s, so that kind of awareness of primitivism, animism was in the air... and the late paintings are, well, I think they are rather wonderful, actually."

n 'Leighton Live' is at the Royal Academy 9, 10, 11, 29, 30 & 31 March, 7.30pm. Tickets available from the RA: 0171-494 5676; First Call (plus booking fee): 0171-420 0000

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