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FringeReview UK 2018

Woman Before a Glass

Jermyn Street Theatre

Genre: Short Plays, Solo Performance, Theatre

Venue: Jermyn Street Theatre


Low Down

In this revival of Lanie Robertson’s 2005 one-woman play, Judy Rosenblatt irradiates the stage. Austin Pendleton’s U. S. production is directed by Tom McClane-Williamson. It’s an alluring set from Erika Rodriguez. Ali Hunter’s lighting is unusually counterpoint to mood and at one stark moment. Rachael Murray’s deft sound wafts like a current under the door. Catherine Siracusa’s dresses provide a richer fabric than Flickr ever could.


You’ll never think of Guggenheim in quite the same way again. Lanie Robertson‘s 2005 hit Woman Before a Glass arrives at Jermyn Street Theatre, Judy Rosenblatt filling the (Peggy) Guggenheim with a solo performance abetted by dresses, drink and a state of the art 1960s telephone. Covering the years 1963-67 this transfer of Austin Pendleton’s U. S. production is ably house-directed by Tom McClane-Williamson, one of the house’s placement initiatives.


Guggenheim, a millionaire-poor relation of the billionaire baron Guggenheims – because her father went down with the Titanic – emerges not only as an obsessive collector, but whose search and rescue extends from art to men in a desperate trope of recovery from fathoms down in her psyche. Even that though belittles her superb eye, her generosity indeed heroism, her capacity to wreck lives which extended to artists she both saved and sometimes soured with abundance. Robertson rightly pivots Guggenheim’s own explanation yet manages something more.


It’s easy to laugh with Rosenbatt’s Stritch-like perusal of talent as she riffles through the allegedly thousand lovers who fumbled through her fabrics – Pollock, Tungay, Kandinsky, Roland Penrose the Picasso expert, everyone except ‘that little shit Picasso’: you get a whole fresh idea of her mounting an exhibition. Those of us who’ve met some of these male embers recall a haunted twinkle when mentioning her name. Rosenblatt revels in Guggenheim’s cheerful sexual voracity. She particularly adores baggy trousers ‘the mystery of it’, a recurring theme. She didn’t want at a virginal 23 to do Europe, but for ‘Europe to do me’. Her wish had her.


But this is foremost a play about Guggenheim’s children, one in particular, and her other thousands, generically. The paintings, artists, refugees she snatched from the Nazis, artists like Jackson Pollock she saved from hunger and a handyman job – one dress is accidentally imprinted with wet paint from his lariat stripings as she pressed against it. In both cases it’s about legacy, the love you leave behind. It’s ultimately devastating and we laugh all the way there.


It’s an alluring set from Erika Rodriguez, an all-white interior with French windows stage right and the habitual entrance/exit behind. Ali Hunter’s lighting is unusually counterpoint to mood and at one stark moment, like a light switched off. It tells you much of the feel of this play, more visual than sonic, Rachael Murray’s deft sound like a current under the door. Rosenblatt’s gifted a coiffured Venetian interior with trimmings: Catherine Siracusa’s dresses provide a richer fabric than Flickr ever could, Rosenblatt fluttering through memories as Guggenheim awaits the Italian president. Characteristically she gestures to a TV crew outside, eyeing up the talent, ready to notch a few more gondoliers or cameramen in her terminally-notched bedpost. No wonder things come crashing.


Paced with three scenes and an epilogue, we trace Guggenheim’s 1963 presidente exuberance, her 1965 disquiet as her daughter’s off-stage bath silence terrifies her, and March 1967 denouement whist managing to confuse the most important of her children through two phone-lines she’s switching back and forth with. No wonder. Her favourite child, ironically blonde ‘Aryan’ Pegeen (both blond children via a philandering husband), is a superb artist. In this version Guggenheim dotes on her talent. There are other readings. Even today though Pegeen’s paintings emit a desperate affirmation; they’re quite brilliant.


Rosenblatt’s bra-shuffle as she actually puts one on, back to the audience, whilst wearing a spill-out dress provides the most deliriously distracting early episode and rightly earns applause. Any one-person show needs such set-pieces and with this, dress-riffling and other bare-cheeked props the ninety minutes spins by as Rosenblatt’s blow-torch-turned-low voice rasps and cackles gently through her banned cigarettes (hidden from the maid, ashes scooped into a designer handbag), maid absenteeism, titled Tate director and finally her daughter.


If the loss of her father, recounted in a harrowing communal wait in chill late April as the Carpathia’s list of survivors is read out, then Guggenheim’s anxiety for Pegeen is very real. Her sheer terror at leaving her in the bathroom alert one to the void in all this exuberance. It doesn’t nullify Guggenheim’s sexuality but underscores the sometimes invasive nature of the eternal rescuer. In contrast Guggenheim’s facing off three blond strapping Nazis she both fancies and abhors is one of the highlights. They’re looking for Jews. It recalls even America’s anti-Semitism yet Guggenheim has to disavow her Jewishness to get by, proclaiming she’s an American whilst recalling America’s wrongs. It’s a neatly understated political coup. From then till the denouement you’re riveted.


Guggenheim saved many, not all artists, but a saviour complex, if that’s what it was, can wreak mild havoc. Sometimes it’s alleged that artists Guggenheim helped into security never painted well again. That’s really their problem, not hers. It’s certain many could not have gone on painting, including Pollock, without her. Rosenblatt’s reading irradiates Robertson’s and indeed Guggenheim’s rationale into a morphology, something felt along the gut. It helps we’re not shown a single painted image, and the appalled and occasionally appallingly purity of Peggy Guggenheim is laid bare. Much as she would have wished, perhaps. More widely, this work addresses the limits of patronage, of rescue, of greed and altruism, of comic high-Bohemianism and sexual affirmation before the sexual revolution. Which of course began in 1963. And above all, a devouring love.