Picasso presents this influential artist as a man who uses women and then moves on to whoever catches his eye next. Like a switch being turned off, interest is lost in one then another takes their place. The word ‘muse’ isn’t used but Picasso (Peter Tate) talks of the number of paintings done for a woman he loves before being instantly unable to paint her again – he has moved on to a younger model and then another younger still.
Picasso is shown as raw and single-minded – not regarding the vision of his art but with a self-centred view of himself and his importance. Over and over we hear from him how he is the ‘sun’ burning bright, the centre of the universe, and it is others that fly too high, too close. Tate is impressive, selfish and egotistic, almost aggressive in his need for young women. Picasso comes through quite powerfully, and the man’s drive to have what he wants is clear to see.
Less successful is the introduction of the women in his life. This was originally a larger play with a full cast but now as a one-man show it isn’t always effective, feeling at times to further minimise their voices. We don’t learn much about them other than as they relate to him. These women, including Olga Khokhlova, Françoise Gilot and Marie-Thérèse Walter, were dancers, artists and poets, but their work is nothing to him and is overlooked here other than as a fleeting reference. All we learn of is their connection with Picasso, and even then it is mostly about the sexual relationship. Their voices are relegated as Tate also provides these with the addition of reverb. Less interrogated too is what these days we recognise as abuse, when Picasso dangles opportunities and connections. If a young lady comes to his studio, the next day he’ll introduce them to poets and artists and filmmakers.
The hour is unrelenting and grim viewing as it is a cycle of Picasso moving from woman to woman treating them appallingly and suggesting that his greatness covers it all. At one point he declares “I don’t change diapers, I am a great artist.” It is Tate’s powerful performance which does manage to keep the audience engaged to the end.
This production does have notably strong technical work from Reuben Bojang. The set design (Eirinia Kariori) uses hanging white gauze curtains around Picasso and the blank backdrops are used for projections, snippets of video. Steven Dean Moore lighting changes as Picasso moves from woman to woman and the accompaniment with Tate as he dances and syncs his dialogue with the video is impressively timed. Somewhat surprisingly, there has been a clear choice not to use any of Picasso’s artwork and while there are references and a Minotaur prop, we don’t see any of the work under discussion.
Can we separate art from the artist? This production shows no sympathy for Picasso; he’s presented as a horrible misogynist, which doesn’t make for pleasant viewing. Even as it imagines Picasso looking back now, he sees himself as a legend, and talks of record-setting auctions. History records him as considered to be one of the greatest and most influential artists of the 20th century. After learning more about the man behind the works, I’m going to remember it the next time I see a Picasso hanging in a museum.
Based on Picasso by Terry d’Alfonso
Adapted & Directed by Guy Masterson
Video Mapping / Co-Lighting Design by Steven Dean Moore
Set & Costume Design by Eirinia Kariori
Picasso plays at The Playgound Theatre until 4 February 2023. Further information and bookings can be found here.