Picasso (Review – Online)

Picasso (Review – Online)

I have been interested recently by the ongoing debate about the artistic product of Eric Gill and whether, in the light of his exposed deviant behaviour his statuary, prints and so forth should be consigned to the attic of history and never put on public display again. Not for the first time the argument rages; in recent years the same discussion has been had about the work of Michael Jackson, Philip Roth, Rolf Harris, Woody Allen and more prosaically Gary Glitter. Can artistic works be separated out from the views/practices of the person who created them? And should exception be made for those considered greatest in their field?

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Such is one of the dominant strands in the play Picasso by Terry d’Alfonso which concentrates on the “relationships” that the most readily recognised artist of the twentieth century had with the various women in his life. “Relationships” appears thus, as watching this biographical piece unfold may well leave the viewer wondering about what the female half of the various pairings got out of these liaisons. Picasso is portrayed (probably quite correctly from all accounts) as a terrifying bully, rampant misogynist and serial abuser who expects anyone and everything to suborn itself to his artistic impulses – and this seems to especially apply to the women in his life. He is a deeply unpleasant man – and yet created many of the most celebrated artifacts of the last century, so are his character flaws therefore forgivable? I’m not sure the play itself really answers that question and if it does attempt to, then it is certainly not with any degree of clarity.

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The set up is essentially that the deceased artist is called upon to appear before some of his so called conquests in order to defend both his artistic and personal reputation. To Picasso, of course, they are indistinguishably co-joined although, at a pinch, art always comes first. He assigns himself an almost mythic status comparing his prowess to the heat of the sun and his attitudes as akin to those of a matador in the bullring. Perhaps the most telling moment is when he links himself to the mythical creature the excessively aggressive and rapacious Minotaur – half man, half bull with a taste for human flesh. Picasso takes this as his cue to essentially devour those who come within his orbit.

Peter Tate bears a striking physical resemblance to the artist and commands the stage/screen as he must do if the play is to make its point. It’s an unrelentingly sombre portrayal leaving little doubt that Picasso must have been a terribly intense figure to be around and even dangerous. In the scenes where he professes his desire/extreme passion for the women in his life he is equally powerful although he uses techniques which we would recognise today as gaslighting. In one horrific example of this he forces his young lover to confront his wife with their baby as a way of getting his spouse to give him a divorce. Even though she complies, Picasso reneges on his promise. The women themselves seem to be complicit and it is never made quite clear why so many fall for his personality nor why they do so quite as often as they do. Some of the characters appear live on stage and some in film inserts; I have to say I wasn’t sure why. Alejandra Costa as Jacqueline Roque comes over best – possibly because we do, at least, see her character fighting back.

Picasso - L-R Peter Tate (Picasso), Alejandra Costa (Jacqueline Roque) - Photographer Scott Rylander

The play was the opening production of The Playground Theatre in 2017. The whole piece is only just over an hour but is exhaustingly intense. It is played out in a large sand pit reminiscent of both a Spanish bull ring and a Japanese sumo wrestling enclosure which only adds to the combative air. Art works appear on a huge screen at the back of the space and provide another level of commentary on proceedings. The essential question at the heart of the play though, should we continue to celebrate the art of the morally repulsive, remains as elusive as it did at the start. It’s an interesting piece but not, I suspect, one that would fully meet with the approval of the perfectionist artist.

Production photos by Scott Rylander

Picasso is available via Scenesaver – click here  

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