Review: A Picasso (Christchurch Art Gallery)
Updated: Jun 2, 2022
Bringing to life one of the greatest artists of all time is no small feat, and nor is creating a suitable character to perform opposite him. NO productions' adaptation of Jeffery Hatcher's thriller sees Picasso (played by David Allen) interviewed/interrogated in Nazi-occupied Paris, as the hard-faced Miss Fischer (Nataliya Oryshchuk). She tries, with little help from him, to discover if she has her hands on a real Picasso, for an exhibition of "degenerate art", or just a few fakes. Part period piece part thriller, the one-act play rests a great deal on its performers and director to create the perfect level of tension and intrigue.
Allen's entrance onto the stage, pacing slowly and tapping his hat by his side, gave the impression of a man who was nervous but also immensely proud and dignified. When he began to speak though, scathingly questioning how ladylike his interviewer is, the subtlety of those opening moments started to ebb away. He did not seem entirely at ease, performing with a readiness that suggested he was preparing for his next line, which detracted from the realism of the performance. When on form he was flamboyantly storytelling one moment and acting like a surly child the next; his overacting came across as a slightly camp parody of Alan Rickman's Severus Snape. From the performance he gave, his strength seems to lie in the crescendo of a show; as the play drew to a close the scenario now seemed to fit Allen's style. Unfortunately, his heightened tension up until this point slightly devalued the climactic payoff.
Some credit for the dramatic adaptation lies with director Michael Adams. Oryshchuk gives a more rounded performance, clearly torn in her loyalties and intimidated, and though her emotionality was a little subdued after the play's twist was revealed she still gave the final moments the weight they deserved. The direction does not give much to be surprised about, however. The timings and tension of each line are somewhat predictable, to the point that you can almost countdown to the next sassy remark or big reveal, ironically reducing their impact. The Hollywood style of direction may cater to some audiences, but I fear those audiences who come for the thrills may not be as engaged with Hatcher's expectant script.
The writing is obviously well informed, and though I felt there was an over-reliance on swearing there are some very sharp lines that are both funny and dark ("He does landscapes" "He has a problem with the borders"). However, the crux of the plot requires a fair amount of prior knowledge on Picasso's life, if not necessarily degenerate art (which I found fascinating to learn about). A little research before the performance would not go amiss, but my gut feeling is that this is a play for art enthusiasts who can overlook the performances and enjoy the characterisation of Picasso on its own terms. Sadly I could not count myself among them, and though the twists and turns of the play can be gripping the production is a little too paint-by-numbers to do it justice. Two stars.
Whispers from the crowd:
"It wasn't what I was expecting, it was really engaging and gave a lot of insight into Picasso's life. It might give you a new light on how you look at his work."