Can it really be five years (“what a surprise”) since David Bowie departed this life? Apparently so and as my own sort of in memoriam I’m writing this review while his songs are playing in the background (apologies if the odd lyric slips through!) Prominent among other commemorative events is a three-day streaming of Lazarus, the theatre piece that he was working on towards the end of his life and which was ultimately produced to extremely mixed reviews – Rolling Stone magazine: “a tour de force… theatre at its finest”; The Times: “pretentious rubbish… nonsense on stilts”. It’s time (“he’s waiting in the wings”) to see why such a division in opinion occurred.
The piece is a kind of follow up to Water Tevis’ 1963 book/Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell To Earth. The latter starred Bowie in the title role as Thomas Newton, an alien at odds with modern American society and who only finds relief in the company of Mary Lou; by the end of the film the starman (“he’s waiting in the sky”) has become an alcoholic recluse and Lazarus is supposed to pick up the story there.
The problem is that playwright Enda Walsh does little with it. The frustrating lack of a narrative arc was the main reason for criticisms five years ago and I have to say I agree. Repetitive, muddled, muddling, over enigmatic and (whisper it who dares) rather dull. Newton continues to find solace in drink, longs for home, thinks constantly about his past relationship with Mary Lou who he fantasises into re-existence; this isn’t moving the original narrative on to any great degree. So new characters are introduced in the form of assistant Elly (who rapidly becomes a Mary Lou clone), an ethereal muse and the sinister Valentine. I really couldn’t fathom who or what he was supposed to be – other than a deranged serial killer. Is he real? Is he supposed to be Newton’s alter ego? Exactly how are the two connected? Don’t expect any of these questions to be answered.
It’s left to the (“gift of”) of sound and vision to do the heavy lifting. Ivo van Hove’s production, very much of the fashion (“turn to the left”) in the middle of the last decade, is simultaneously stripped back and very busy with some stunning use of his trademark video, which at times has the stage glittering with cascading light. The songs, of course, are of the highest order with some twenty or so Bowie numbers featured. There are new songs and classics from the golden years (‘nothing’s gonna touch you’) which for the most part are well delivered especially when they are so closely connected to a particular voice in a particular era. A stripped back ‘Life On Mars’ and ‘Heroes’ add a note of poignancy although I thought the rendition of what should be a light and airy song, ‘Changes’, was rather lumpen. Despite the cast’s best efforts though, the most frisson inducing moment comes when Bowie himself sings on an all too brief voiceover. The seven-piece band provide tight and nuanced accompaniment.
Michael C. Hall plays the enigmatic central character but, because of the writing, really has nowhere he can take it other than repeated agonising over his situation which eventually becomes a bit wearisome. Amy Lennox as Elly has some interesting moments but, once again, the script takes her and us down a blind alley. It’s really only Valentine that provokes interest – indeed I have a feeling that Walsh (and perhaps Bowie) became more fascinated by this character than their original protagonist. As enigmatic as Newton, Valentine’s sudden bursts of extreme unexplained violence seem straight out of American Psycho, but everything seems so detached that these acts do not provoke any particular emotion. Michael Esper who plays Valentine probably has the best singing voice but it is not used all that often and as already indicated the role really doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything – or it’s simply my lack of perception.
While I was glad to catch up with this production and there were things in it which were admirable, I thought the whole thing came across as a failed attempt to reinvent the juke box musical. By nature, these are light somewhat frothy entertainments merely designed to hold a string of random songs together and give them a degree of coherence. But Mama Mia or Jersey Boys, Lazarus ain’t and trying to impose heavy handed symbolism and a sense of gravitas on the format merely seems pretentious. I wonder if this piece was truly in its finished state and had Bowie lived would further work have refined this interesting (space) oddity – sorry, but really you always knew it was going to end this way! Now I’m going to get back to the music.