‘It came alive, every minute of it’: WOMAN BEFORE A GLASS – Jermyn Street Theatre

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Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 3 February 2018

You cross the stage floor to the toilets and a warning sign on the little set alerts you to the danger of tripping over a “solid stone” bench. So I tapped it, expecting polystyrene or MDF but no – solid. Apparently it was hell getting it down the narrow stairs. Quite right though: nothing but quality has a place in the classy whiteness of Erika Rodriguez’s set for this evocation of Peggy Guggenheim’s life, art collection, and robust attitudes.

And when Judy Rosenblatt prowls onto the stage to dump on it an armful of posh frocks and reminisce (“I danced all night with Duchamp in this” etc), the dresses are pretty classy too. Director Austin Pendleton and – even more deservingly – writer Lanie Robertson won plaudits for this one-woman show in the US, and it is a feather in the cap of the little Jermyn Street Theatre to bring it here. Try not to miss it. Really, I mean it…

Rosenblatt – chirpy, confidential, demanding – catches precisely the masterful and irritable energy of the woman who – wealthy, but from the “millionaire not billionaire” branch of the family – almost single-handedly supported, bought, promoted and championed the most important art of the mid-2oth century.

Drawing from interviews and her own writings, Robertson has picked out the anecdotes, the boasts, the tragedies and the vital moments of insight and woven them into something moving, arresting, often very funny.

It was, she says, one of her lovers Samuel Beckett who told her – a Renaissance-lover – to collect and pay attention to the art of her own time, Europe’s turbulent years, and to support those who expressed it. There was a beauty too in her adoption of Venice, where the astonishing collection is now safe in her little palazzo under the aegis of her (often heavily disparaged ) “ugly uncle” Guggenheim in America.

The melding of old aestheic sensitivities and the shockingly new is what makes visiting it so marvellous. I nearly booked another flight to Venice in the train going home, so passionately did she evoke the marvels of Kandinsky, Picasso, Pollock, Rothko, Giacometti and the rest.

But it is entertaining too, as she shrugs through anecdotes about great figures of the century, whether dancing the night away with her, accepting bungs of money to get on making art painting, or in one case being exasperatingly holed up “in the spare room with a couple of Russian soldiers”. Her hopes and sorrows and admiration for her artist daughter Pegeen – and Pegeen’s sad end – are handled with finesse and real feeling; her passion for colour, form, soul and honesty in all art forms is infectious, her blasts of spite at her uncle’s “Tyrolean bitch” enchanting. The description – never laboured – of how close she came to being rounded up by Nazi soldiers as a “Juive” while on her way to flee through the Med with the precious “decadent” artworks is superb. “Je suis Americaine!” she spat, and they backed off.

It came alive, every minute of it. A tremendous performance, a jewel.

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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