La Casa Azul, Lyric Hammersmith, London

Kahlo's art of suffering

Rhoda Koenig
Saturday 01 February 2014 05:13
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It's funny how avant-garde techniques can sometimes look, at least to someone past her first youth, like work that is not only much earlier but more primitive. Robert Lepage is the red-hot favourite of the far-out theatre crowd, and yet this play about the Mexican surrealist painter Frida Kahlo often seems like a silent film with subtitles, or a series of vaudeville skits, including the old magic trick of the floating lady.

Based on Kahlo's writing by Sophie Faucher, who also plays the painter, the play (translated by Neil Bartlett) is a series of brief scenes from her colourful life, the colours being mostly the all-pervading deep blue of her house and the bright red of her blood. Along with meeting Diego Rivera, whom she married, divorced, and remarried, the most important event in Kahlo's life was a horrific accident when the bus she was riding crashed into a tram. As she tells it: "The handrail on the tram went right through me. A metal shaft entered me, through my left thigh, and came out through my vagina. A bull, skewered by a sword; a matador, gored, spiked on a horn.'' Up to this point, I was as sympathetic as I was appalled. But when Kahlo added: "That was the day I became a woman,'' I had to try hard, like Oscar Wilde reading about Little Nell, not to burst out laughing.

I made the effort not only to preserve theatrical decorum, but out of self-preservation, as I feared being taken out and lynched by Kahlo worshipers. With this speech, the show nails not only blue and red but all its colours to the mast, announcing that it is less concerned with Kahlo's art than with her suffering, and that this makes her emblematic of all women.

The mechanical rape symbolises and foreshadows her mistreatment by her promiscuous husband, who replies to the marriage oath "Both spouses vow to be faithful'' with "Impossible''. As Rivera, Patric Saucier's sluggishness makes the paunchy painter's strike rate unlikely, as well as vitiating the evil he is supposed to have done his wife – he looks as if he wouldn't have the energy.

Faucher is intermittently touching, but, like the text, more often tedious. For every witty remark, there are paragraphs of fairground-fortune-teller bilge: "Day shall follow day; you shall render and you shall receive; receive, and render.''

The real hit was scored by Lise Roy, with her distinct and clever inter- pretations of seven other parts, including Death and Leon Trotsky. Made up of 24 short, disconnected scenes, the play frustrates us with the amount it leaves out – why the couple split and reunited, why Kahlo's sister, who lived with them for a time, slept with Rivera, and what happened to her and her child. Despite its unsatisfactory nature, however, the show gives us the impression of an extraordinary woman. Who else could say it's important to wear clean knickers, because "you never know when you'll get run over by a truck'', and then throw back her head and laugh?

To Saturday (020-8741 2311)

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