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Edinburgh Fringe 2014

Pope Head: The Secret Life of Francis Bacon

Garry Roost / Free Festival

Genre: Solo Show

Venue: Laughing Horse @ Ryrie’s


Low Down

 "A powerful portrait of the artist Francis Bacon. Caught wearing his mother’s stockings, banished from the family home, sent to Berlin with his father’s henchman. Transfixed by Picasso. On to the Colony Club, champagne, a tragic love life. ‘I think of life as meaningless, yet it excites me. I think each day something marvellous is about to happen’. ‘Champagne for my real friends. Real pain for my sham friends!’ Dark comedy drama written by and starring Garry Roost, directed by Paul Garnault."


At the end of Porterhouse Blue, Tom Sharpe’s sharp satire on the cloistered world of a dysfunctional Oxbridge college, the dons discuss whom they should commission to paint a portrait of their recently deceased master. Who might be called on to carry out poetic justice on the memory of a late, unlamented, interloping personification of crashing modernity?
The British establishment has almost as many issues with the artist Francis Bacon as Bacon had grievances against it. Bacon was from the establishment (a descendant as well as namesake of the Tudor man of letters), but was he of it? His work made no concessions to conventional morality or taste. So where did it come from? 
In Garry Roost’s one man show, Pope Head, the interweaving of person and persona are untangled. We witness Bacon’s smouldering resentment against the petty tyranny of mediocrity. We observe him reacting against the glacial unbending of 20th century British cultural stiffness. We ask did Bacon make art, or did art make Bacon?
Roost’s approach to biographic portraiture avoids editorialisation. He rejects the stuffy iconoclasm of TV arts dramas on BBC Cleverbox. Neither is he a hagiographer or latter day Savonarola. He is also entirely non-linear. Yes, his story begins at the beginning and ends at the end, by way of the middle. But his chorus, his narrator, is Bacon amalgamated from all his life, rather than the product of a particular moment of introspection.
The effect is firstly to present an image of Bacon which the artist’s remaining friends have recognised and embraced. Secondly, to clear a path by which initiates and non-initiates can approach the plastered saint. Thirdly, to stage a clear and compelling piece of live storytelling on a canvas broad enough for Roost to flex his considerable talents to their fullest extent.
The upstairs room at Ryrie’s (part of the Free Fringe) is not a big space. The noise from the adjacent kitchen doesn’t so much bleed into the performance space as gush in from a open wound. There’s no integrity to the space, save what Roost’s own artistry can impose. He succeeds and it is marvellous to behold.
We enter to find three pop up banners before, behind and between which the story will unfold. As the performance gathers pace, Roost grows ever more playful and inventive. There is no techie, no lighting and sound desk. The static lighting design arguably throws more light (and dark) on the contrasting shades and keenly observed intricacies of his subject than would the occasional fade in and out.
We are sitting right at the back on stools. The only two other audience members are in the front(ish) row in lounge chairs. Roost keeps us all hooked as he reels us in from around the room, but watching the focused energy he spends on the nearer couple becomes a performance within a performance. Like his just glimpsed pre-show preparations behind the banners they get us and him, into the zone. Does Roost paint while playing Bacon? No. He’s not a painter, he’s an actor and yet in the act of live creation the distinction between art forms is rendered null and void.
Roost is a superb character actor, one of the most inspired at the Fringe. His portraiture is not caricature, polemic or self-examination. He is removed without being absent. He is in there but as faithful squire to the proud knight he serves. Productions don’t get any Fringier than a one man play about a controversial modern artist, presented above a relatively non-descript pub in the far end of town. Neither do they get any better than Pope Head.