Few lives are more dramatic than that of Lucian Freud, the feted figurative painter who died four years ago after a long, obsessively pursued career and bewildering trail of liaisons. To any admirer of the man and his work, the mystery was how he held it all together, to the extent that he did, and how he managed for decade upon decade to evade successful scrutiny by the increasingly curious media.
In terms of the English class strata, this Jewish pre-war migrant, grandson of the great psychoanalyst Sigmund, conducted a vertical life, drawing his friendships from the topmost drawers of the high-born to the basements of lowlife in seedy Fifties Paddington. One day the Duchess of Devonshire, next the Kray twins.
Who could blame Laura-Jane Foley, arts journalist and academic, for writing to him while she was a student to request an interview. Under no illusions when the then 81-year-old Lothario replied to reject the interview but propose dinner instead, she went to visit him in his Notting Hill studio.
An Evening with Lucian Freud does what it says in the catalogue. It is an account, inevitably autobiographical, of that evening. As such, it is a rich example of writing about what you know. Also a case of If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It, since countless aspiring analysts (the canvas rather than the couch variety) tried and failed to secure just such an audience. For all his physicality, both as a painter and a person, he was a famously spectral creature, somehow moving sideways, gliding through walls, compartmentalising his own relentless work schedule with the utmost selfishness.
Foley might have portrayed herself in the show, but this would have made it less of a play, and lent it the unwanted air of a vanity project. There was no shortage of candidates for the role which, in the end, went to Cressida Bonas, who needs no introduction. Like it or not, the casting of Prince Harry’s delectable ex lends yet another strand to the drama, guaranteeing the project a news-page coverage which it might otherwise have struggled for.
What Lucian Freud would have thought of Bonas requires no leap of the imagination. The safe bet is that he would have asked her to sit for him. That word was not simply a titter-inducing euphemism; just as his life and work were inextricably tied together, so were many of his professional and personal associations. To sit for him was a kind of privileged ordeal – long, demanding, physically and emotionally gruelling beyond all expectations. In the words of some discarded holders of the position, it was addictive, life-changing and heart-breaking.
There are moments when Foley and her play become coy and coquettish, a tendency accentuated by Bonas’s stop-it-I-like-it handling of the social manoeuvres. But as far as the narrative is concerned, with its fairly classic set-up of the lovely 21-year-old fan in the lair of the octogenarian maestro, it’s a page-turner. It’s also a rather sweetly self-deprecating account of an eager student who acknowledges the presence of the “immense self-belief that only a 21-year-old can muster.”
She takes a wide-eyed tour of Freud’s house and studio, the rooms and staircases packed with priceless works. He showers her with books, most of them about himself; they take a hair-raising ride in his Rolls, a journey thick with curb-mounting, light-jumping, pedestrian-threatening incidents; they have a strangely mundane dinner in north London with Lucian’s old friend Frank Auerbach and his wife.
In supplementing her own memoir with the testimonies of others, such as Picasso’s muse Dora Maar and Lucian’s regular sitter Leigh Bowery, Foley freights her one-woman show with the substance of a larger biodrama. Here she is well served by video cameos from Alistair Stewart as a thwarted TV interviewer, Maureen Lipman as Dora and Russell Grant as Bowery. Perhaps a more experienced dramatist would have incorporated these witnesses less clunkily, but given that this is Foley’s debut play, it’s a bold and engaging piece of portraiture, ingeniously directed by Ella Marchment. Lucian Freud would have loathed it, and this is no small compliment.
Review by Alan Franks
An Evening with Lucian Freud
Written by Laura-Jane Foley
at The Lounge Leicester Square Theatre
Cressida Bonas stars as ‘Laura’ in the world premiere of a new play opening at the Leicester Square Theatre on 19th May 2015. Laura-Jane Foley’s ‘An Evening with Lucian Freud’ is a one-woman play with video cameos which takes us inside Lucian Freud’s studio and lays bare the fascinating and complex character of one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. Directed by Ella Marchment and designed by Lily German, the play explores the themes of memory, permanence and creativity, and ultimately reflects on how artists, and writers, must use people to make their art.
It is the day of Laura’s PhD viva and she arrives early at the university research office. While she waits, she recounts the extraordinary tale of the evening she spent with the artist Lucian Freud. Based on a real life encounter, this personal, anecdotal tale is blended with art historical and biographical insights and features a range of fictionalized sitters who have been on the receiving end of Freud’s unflinching gaze.
With video cameos by:
Maureen Lipman, Russell Grant, Alastair Stewart, Shana Swash, Laura-Jane Foley and Benjamin Ramm
Twitter: @wonderfulartful #LucianFreudPlay
Running time: 60 minutes
Friday 22nd May 2015