Saturday, January 20, 2018

Review: 'Woman Before A Glass' at the Jermyn Street Theatre, 18th January 2018

Woman Before A Glass reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

There are worse ways to spend 90 minutes than in the company of Peggy Guggenheim. Born into the insanely wealthy Guggenheim family (her uncle established the famous Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan), she used her wealth and connections to build one of the most important collections of 20th-century art in the world. She also shagged her way through pretty much all of the last century's best and brightest - her appetite for paintings rivalled only by her libido.

Lanie Robertson's Woman Behind A Glass shows us Guggenheim if not in the final chapter of her life, then definitely somewhere in the third act. After living through World War II, in which she saved countless works of modern art from destruction at the hands of the Nazis, she's settled in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni ('unfinished palazzo of the lions') in a prime position on the Grand Canal in Venice.

Here, her concerns are primarily what's to happen to the collection upon her death. Museums from around the world are schmoozing up to her, desperate to acquire the paintings that, just twenty years previous, the Louvre dismissed as "not worth saving". In the interim, she bitches about her relatives, worries about her children and reminisces about her best lays.

We meet her preparing for a visit from the Italian Prime Minister, presumably hoping to butter her up and try and convince her to leave her collection to Italy. Entering with an armful of dresses, she tosses them on a divan and tries to decide what to wear. Each item of clothes comes with a memory attached, kicking off a meandering tour through Guggenheim's greatest hits.

I worried early on that, as fun as Peggy Guggenheim is, that the show would essentially be one long exercise in name-dropping. It's true that, at about the 30-minute mark, the novelty of hearing someone animatedly chat about how they spent a working week gettin' it on with, say, Samuel Beckett wears off a little.

Fortunately, just as that routine begins to feel repetitive, the play imperceptibly switches gears and becomes less boastful and more introspective. Guggenheim muses on her place in the world, her obligations as custodian of these important works and her role in history. This is never more keenly felt than in a remarkable passage in which she tells us her childhood memory waiting at the docks in New York for the survivors of Titanic to disembark the Carpathia. Her father was on the ship and, as a first-class passenger would be expected to have survived. He was never seen again - and it's a testament to the writing that you can sense the impact of his absence in her life without it ever being explicitly explained.

Of course, all the clever writing in the world would be naught without a great delivery, and Judy Rosenblatt (who played the role in a 2011 New York revival) is never less than compelling. She's all conspiratorial winks and asides to various members of the audience, combined with an earthy, mature and casual eroticism - especially in the first part of the play which she spends in a loose-fitting white gown under which her breasts are unselfconsciously displayed. Rosenblatt straightforwardly feels natural in the part, inhabiting Peggy Guggenheim like she's putting on a worn yet comfy pair of slippers.

Rosenblatt also nicely layers in elements of tension. There's a sequence where she's fussily preparing for her daughter's art exhibition, running through an all-star list of attendees while encouraging her to get ready. Her daughter, Pegeen Vail Guggenheim, remains an off-stage presence, yet the slightly strained and panicky tone that Rosenblatt takes while calling her effectively prefigures future events.

Woman Before A Glass is a modest, theatrically unambitious production. The set is just on the right side of minimalist, the writing is straightforward and the acting is as casually naturalistic as you're likely to see. But it's precisely these elements that help the play achieve its focus and clarity - neatly mirroring the modernist philosophies behind much of the art she collected. It's a great play, a great performance and well worth checking out.

Woman Before A Glass is at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 3rd February. Tickets here.

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