Sunday, 21 January 2018

REVIEW: Woman Before a Glass at Jermyn Street Theatre

A few months ago, I found myself in Venice for a day on my way to another destination, and a stroll took me to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, directly on the Grand Canal. What an exquisite place to live and keep a collection of art – “children”, as Peggy would call hers. 

If you are looking to escape the cold streets of London this month, head down to the Jermyn Street Theatre and be taken away to Venice. With humour, heartbreak and grand hauteur, “Woman before a glass” offers the unforgettable story of the woman who discovered, encouraged and subsidized many of the greatest Expressionist and Surrealist painters of the first half of the Twentieth century, and was responsible for smuggling her enormous collection out of Europe and out of the hands of the Nazis. 

As soon as you enter this charming little theatre space, you are transported, thanks to Erika Rodriguez’s set design, with vintage dresses and furniture, and Ali Hunter’s lighting design. The sunshine quality of the lighting blinds Peggy (played by Judy Rosenblatt) as she gives instructions to the photographers who are about to take her picture for an interview.

There are three main parts in this one-woman show, written by Lanie Robertson. 

We start out in what we imagine being a finely curated garden with sculptures and a fountain. Peggy is sharing with us, the audience, the story behind each of her designer dresses. She’s looking for the perfect outfit for her photo shoot, and still finds she has nothing to wear! The stories take us to different times and countries and tell us about her family’s journey, not forgetting her father who died on the Titanic when she was 13, and great love for buying contemporary art. 

Later, we are in Peggy’s powder room. She’s just taken a wonderful bath and talks to her daughter, who is about to take one too, before they go out on the town. Her dresses play a role again, as she prepares to be the centre of attention at the event they are going to. We learn more about her relationship to men, and those she wishes she had married. She is a real chatter, and never loses our attention. 

Thirdly, we are in a living room, furnished with a velvet green chair. She is
talking on the phone with the curator of the Tate, who wants to buy her collection. Many national galleries wanted to acquire her “children”, but as we know, it ended up staying in Venice. Her art of conversation mixed with her chain smoking and nerves about her daughter’s depression take us behind the scenes of such an exquisite and rich life. I really enjoyed her anecdotes about Picasso who at first didn’t even want to sell her his work and her escape from Marseille as the Nazis invaded France. She was one of those women who would see more in a year than most would in a lifetime.

The three sets are blended into one on the small stage, which avoids stage hands entering and exiting and distracting us. Everything is there, but is very precisely separate. 

Judy Rosenblatt is an absolute joy to watch, listen to and laugh with. To hear her gossiping and telling of her acquaintances such as her husband Max Ernst around Europe and America truly takes us into another dimension, and you hang on her every word, even spoken in French or Italian. Rosenblatt successfully shows Peggy’s ease for communication, knowledge about how to live every day fully, and most importantly her true passion for art and the support of the so-called outsider artists of her time. Indeed, she explains the high importance of supporting contemporary artists, as they are the ones who are most trying to make sense of the chaos we are living in. 

This is a wonderful trip back in time and a lovely evening filled with art, accompanied by a woman who has seen so much.

Review by Sophie Tergeist 

Rating: ★★★★
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