Theatre Review: Woman Before a Glass, Jermyn Street Theatre ‘A Woman Larger Than Life’

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Peggy Guggenheim was a one-off. An extraordinary woman whose lust for life was only matched by her passion for art. A rare example of a woman who was a pivotal figure in the 20th century art scene, Peggy used her wealth to sponsor struggling artists in interwar Paris and elsewhere after the War, building a significant and hugely influential collection of modern art of her own.

In fact, so significant is Peggy to the history of modern art that she is often credited with discovering legends such as Giacometti and Jackson Pollock.

But, more than this, her private life was seen as scandalous, whether it was in the form of her numerous lovers, or her perilous escape from occupied France and the Nazis. Peggy’s life fascinates in so many ways. She was she a woman in a man’s world – as this play hints at nicely with a reference to a misogynistic diss she was on the receiving end of from Picasso – and her love life made her life worthy of gossip when men were not judged for similar behaviour.

So, with this in mind, I loved that writer Lanie Robertson preferred to focus this play around Peggy’s utter devotion to art, rather than something more superficial and gossipy. It gives this play both weight, but also genuine insight into Peggy herself.

We meet an older Peggy (played by Judy Rosenblatt) in the 1960s. Her reputation as one of the most important art collectors is secured, as is her life in her Venetian palazzo on the edge of the Grand Canal. But what isn’t secure is the future of her ‘children.’ No, not her literal children; rather, this is the term she uses for her extraordinary and vast modern art collection.

The choice of words gives an interesting insight into Peggy’s priorities, but also demonstrates the immense affection and connection she feels to the vast number of artworks from the likes of Pollock, Giacometti, Kandinsky, Braque, Duchamp, Dali, Henty Moore, Magritte and Mondrian, as well as Picasso himself, that she houses in her own museum on the banks of the Canal.

It is securing the future of these artworks that sets the scene for this play that follows Peggy in the last chapters of her life as she sets the big galleries off against each other – the New York Metropolitan, the Washington National Gallery and the Tate – in a bid to ensure her collection is safe after she dies. But what this great set-up also allows us to do is spend some time in the presence of the great woman.

Judy Rosenblatt is as charismatic as the woman herself. She commands our attention throughout this one-woman show, charming us and confiding in us in equal measure. But we also get to observe the drama and dynamics that surround her, from her parties and numerous casual lovers, to her beloved daughter’s battles with depression – an introverted, private daughter struggling to live in a world dominated by her gregarious mother.

The writing from Lanie Robertson is wonderfully pitched, blending scenes of humour and outrageous behaviour with intimate moments of drama and loss that flesh Peggy out into a fully rounded woman rather than simply relying on her larger-than-life persona to keep us captivated. And it’s complemented with some lovely directorial touches from Austin Pendleton that keeps Peggy moving, keeps her showing her habits, and gives us plenty to observe.

Oh, and a special shout out to designer Erika Rodriguez for the Alexander Calder-style mobile in the set. The woman herself would have appreciated that touch! This is a hugely enjoyable show and one that demonstrates how a true passion can last a lifetime.

Jermyn Street Theatre, London, to February 3, 2018
Tickets £30 (concessions available)
All production images by Robert Workman

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