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Brighton Fringe 2023

Low Down

If I say the words – ‘Salvador Dali’, what images come to mind?

Floppy clocks, probably; followed by a lobster telephone; and the outrageous moustache, looking like a pair of bent rapiers on either side of Dali’s upper lip.

It was a packed audience in the basement theatre at the Latest Music Bar, and we experienced all of those –  time, telephones, and the ‘tache – in one form or another …


Einstein told us that time goes faster or slower, depending on the observer. Salvador Dali knew Einstein personally, and those limp timepieces in his paintings are symbolic references to the theory of Relativity. Time was passing pretty slowly at the start of the show, as they couldn’t start until a large group of latecomers had arrived and taken their seats. A woman in a vivid pink jacket was on stage trying to keep order, urging us to be patient and squeezing people into more and more spaces. I’d assumed that she was the Front of House at the Latest Bar, but she turned out to be Gala – Dali’s wife.

Wife, Business Manager, and Muse, actually.  When Dali finally appeared, he was supposed to deliver a lecture on ‘Surrealism’. But he didn’t want to do it, and Gala had to force him. “It’s only an hour”. Dali’s horrified – “An HOUR!, sixty minutes! … How many seconds is that? ”

Then when he finally got started, a woman’s phone went off in the second row. Not a ringtone, just the voice of the caller. The owner was mortified, for she wasn’t able to stop the sound, and by now the whole audience couldn’t avoid listening in too. Andrew Allen – it was him playing Dali – wasn’t fazed by it, though – he used it, making a show of working through the phone screens with the owner (to no avail) and finally commented – “Don’t be worried – it gives me a break”.

Allen’s very well suited for the role of Salvador Dali. He’s a writer and director as well as a performer, and he spends some of his time in Victorian garb, conducting Ghost Walks in the Brighton Lanes. So he has the confidence to relate effortlessly to an audience, and the personal charisma to turn himself into someone as ego-driven as Dali. His piercing eyes transfixed us as he reminded us just what a great Artist he was – “Only Leonardo daVinci is my equal!”

But of course – a lot of Dali’s public persona is just an image.  Andrew Allen’s Dali is clean-shaven, and to produce the image of ‘Salvador Dali the Surrealist’ his wife took a pen and inked in the trademark moustache onto his cheeks. He told us that he was fed up with all the pressures of being famous, but Gala reminded him that “Without the personality, nobody would buy your paintings …”

And she should know.  Helen Stirling-Lane played Gala as very much the grown-up in their relationship, to Dali’s rather petulant child. I’d only ever seen paintings of Gala as a younger woman, but in fact she was ten years older than Dali – thirty-four when she met the penniless twenty-four year old Surrealist painter. It was Gala who promoted his art, and his exotic appearance, and encouraged dealers and galleries to take him seriously.

Exotic’s putting it mildly. Dali had a pet ocelot, called Babou, who he took everywhere, even seating the animal beside him at restaurant tables. As you probably know, an ocelot’s not much bigger than a domestic cat, so it was quite a shock – or maybe we should call it a surreal experience – when a six-foot Babou suddenly materialised: all furry pelt, whiskered face, and a lot of hissing! Joshua Davey’s a big bloke, and he made Babou look huge

But maybe that’s the point. Dali had explained earlier about Surrealism, and how it played with the contents of the Unconscious mind. He knew Freud, had visited the great man in London – and it was becoming apparent that we were actually inside Dali’s mind, seeing events with the artist’s mind’s eye. If Babou’s big – it’s because he’s important to Dali.

But there’s a lot of darker stuff in Dali’s unconscious, too. A red spotlight came on at the back of the stage and the artist’s Father appeared out of the darkness. Dali had had a very difficult relationship with that parent: his father had wanted him to be a lawyer, a ‘respectable profession’, and had actually thrown him out of the family home. That was years before, but Hamilton Wilson produced the well-remembered sneering tone as he dismissed Dali’s efforts. “A lecture on Surrealism? All I can hear is a lot of gibberish. It’s rubbish, and you’re a failure. Give it up!”

Dali wasn’t a failure – with Gala’s guidance he became hugely famous, and very rich. But of course that sort of wealth and fame attracts hangers-on, and we were given glimpsed memories of his parties. Helen Stirling-Lane morphed into a Contessa for this bit, pointing out the hollowness and emptiness of celebrity.

Dali’s was a very busy life, and there were crowds of characters in his Unconscious. We met his friend Louise, a woman who spent a lot of time as his companion and it seems was genuinely concerned for the artist’s wellbeing. Summer Tewkesbury played Louise, though she also gave us Miranda, Anna, a Butterfly, and even an Idea – (just imagine how that role is going to look on Tewksbury’s CV …)

Busy life – busy show. Director Murray Hecht gave us an imaginative rendering of Tim Coakley’s writing. As well as some very atmospheric lighting effects, there were movement sequences, using lengths of silk to twine sinuously round the dancers as they swayed and spun. One amazing episode had the characters wearing bizarrely coloured masks, angular-featured like in a cubist painting…

All the actors played multiple characters from Dali’s unconscious – we met the full gamut, from Mussolini and George Orwell to Dali’s mother and Zizi De La Zagaleta. a constantly changing parade of characters (these people are quick-change artists as well as actors)  In an unsettling scene, Hamilton Wilson became Dali’s dark Shadow, mirroring the artist’s movements as if in a large looking glass, and eventually stretching up to become taller, monstrous, while Dali himself shrank, on the other side of the glass …

There were also fleeting manifestations of Federico Garcia Lorca. The poet and the artist had been close friends – a strange combination: the left-wing poet and playwright (he was murdered by the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War) and the Monarchist, Franco-supporting Surrealist. Joshua Davey played Lorca (thankfully without the Babou pelt …)

Lorca was gay, but there’s no evidence that the two men ever had a relationship. He’s in Dali’s unconscious mind though – a very important presence. At the end, it’s he who reveals to Dali just what’s actually been going on during the show.   Something really profound, and Lorca’s contribution is crucial – but I’m not going to reveal it to you.

You’ll just have to see this surreal production for yourselves.


Strat Mastoris