The Playground Theatre, London
For its first performance, London’s newest theatre, located in a former bus garage just off Ladbroke Grove, has chosen to debut a play about Pablo Picasso, or, more precisely the artist’s relationship with the women, who were both muse and scapegoat.
Such is the conflict which rages through writer (and film maker) Terry d’Alfonso’s Picasso, it is fitting that he is portrayed during one scene as a Minotaur, the ultimate conflation of man and beast. Certainly, there was something labyrinthine about Picasso’s relationship with his women, at least two of whom never quite managed to escape the hold he held over them.
His first wife, Olga Khokova, is seen onscreen in a film that plays above the stage, despairing at his infidelities. The film both fleshes out the drama in front in of us, while keeping costs, cast and the running time to a minimum. On stage, we see Picasso’s relationship with young French journalist Genevieve Laporte (Adele Oni), who eventually managed to get away, at some considerable cost to her own sense of self.
None of the artist’s relationships – played out in a beautifully modish sandpit (and staged by director Michael Hunt) – were functional, at least not as far as the women involved were concerned, and there is no satisfactory explanation why such accomplished, not to say beautiful women chose to stay with such a monstrous ego. Picasso himself is played as a muscular Hunchback of Notre Dame de Vie by co-founder of The Playground, Peter Tate, who, while convincing as a conflicted genius, offers us little in the way of mitigation.
We are expected to accept this Picasso, arrived fully-formed. It’s a little like being shown a completed painting without any explanation of what it shows, or how it was achieved.
However, the performances, particularly those of the women, are tremendous. In addition to Oni, who transforms herself from believer to non-believer with just the right degree of scepticism, Claire Bowman is perfectly nuanced as Marie Therese Walter (who hanged herself four years after Picasso’s death). But, for me, the stand-out performance of the night belonged to Alejandra Costra who, in her professional stage debut, was utterly mesmerising as Picasso’s headstrong and adoring young widow, Jacqueline Roque, who shot herself in 1986.
The Playground, which has already established itself at the heart of this community following the tragic events just up the road at Grenfell, promises much just as soon as it has found its feet. And, indeed, a more socially engaging programme is planned for the future. I just wish it had chosen a more challenging debut. The theatre itself however, is a brilliant and exciting addition to this part of West London, and the cafe serves up absolutely delicious tapas.