Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 3 February 2018
“Modern art is never an answer, it is a question.” Woman Before a Glass may be a one-woman show but what a woman it reveals to us.
Peggy Guggenheim was born into one of the wealthiest New York socialite families at the dawn of the 20th century and, during a most unconventional lifetime, became a mainstay of the modern art scene. The art, and artists, that she collected made her Venetian palazzo one of the hottest spots to be seen and it is there that we visit her for the three key scenes of this play by Lanie Robertson.
The first is introduced with a wonderfully clever conceit – searching for an outfit to wear for an interview, she sifts through a pile of couture gowns, reminiscing about them all and thus giving us an instant insight into her existence.
A strained relationship with her family both immediate and extended, an apparently insatiable sexual appetite, and a genuine love for the collection, protection and encouragement of the modern artists that she gathered around her. Plus she has a nifty way with a cocktail shaker.
And in Austin Pendleton’s production, re-created here by Tom McClane-Williamson as the opening salvo in the Jermyn Street’s Scandal season, it is a vibrant and fascinating delight which is as much a social history of the 20th century as it is a personal testament.
As she mercilessly rips into Samuel Beckett and James Joyce for their gnomic conversation skills, or Pablo Picasso for his rampant misogyny, one begins to understand the need for the hard shell that Guggenheim built around her.
In openly defying societal norms – indeed she puts Nora Joyce on blast at one point for wanting to chat about ‘homely’ things – she lays herself open to charges of being a thoughtless mother, a homewrecker, a bad person. Robertson’s writing could perhaps more usefully delve deeper into the psychology of this but what it does point up is the age-old double standard that men and women are held up to and crucially, refuse to allow it to inform this play. So we’re allowed to revel in Guggenheim’s licentiousness (“I’ve always been fascinated by men in baggy trousers”), the husbands she slept with (‘mine, and other people’s…’), the intimate relationships she cultivated with the artists she supported so fully.
Woman Before A Glass is delivered with uncompromising frankness by Judy Rosenblatt, her conspiratorial tone crafting confidences with her audience (I loved the constant references to her estranged uncle’s new wife “the bitch of Baden Baden”), sprinkled with occasional moments of emotional gravitas, as in when she relays the tale of her father’s passing on the ill-fated Titanic, and a forthright attitude that keeps us rapt throughout this engaging tale.