Peggy Guggenheim was an extraordinary woman. Her father, Benjamin Guggenheim drowned when the Titanic sank, and Peggy mourned his loss for the rest of her life. As she states early in Lanie Robertson’s play Woman Before A Glass, Benjamin was just a millionaire, unlike his six brothers who were billionaires, but she didn’t let that hold her back and in 1919, aged 21, Peggy inherited $2.5million (about $35 million in today’s money) which she spent putting together one of the greatest collections of modern art the world has ever seen.
Whilst in Paris just before the war, she was buying a picture a week which meant that the artists could survive – as Peggy says in the play “what good’s a dead artist”! She also went to bed with a lot of them – it’s said that she may have slept with over a thousand men! They were mainly writers, artists and intellectuals – amongst them were Samuel Beckett, Max Ernst (who she married) and ELT Mesens.
By the time she died in 1979, she had championed the likes of Jackson Pollock, Kandinsky and had amassed ten Picasso’s and three Dali’s amongst many, many other great works of modern art. Add this to the problems she had with her two dysfunctional children Sinbad and Pegeen and there’s a major story to be told but I’m not convinced that Robertson’s 2005 one-woman play quite tells it.
It’s Venice in 1963 and Guggenheim played by Judy Rosenblatt bursts onto Erika Rodriguez’s superb set depicting Guggenheim’s 18th-century canal-side palazzo talking nineteen to the dozen as the President of Italy is arriving to see her collection and there’s a TV crew in the house. One of the big problems with one-person shows is who does the character talk to? In this case, Guggenheim/Rosenblatt breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience as if they’re in her home and are welcome guests. This is a clever device and allows Rosenblatt to occasionally address individuals in the audience to joke with them and she has someone to focus which works superbly in the tiny Jermyn Street space. Rosenblatt doesn’t just play Peggy – she inhabits her which is not surprising as she played her in the 2011 New York revival. She delivers some superb lines and she fires them off like a jammed machine gun with attitude. Guggenheim is vain, self-centred and her hedonistic lifestyle meant she had little time for her children’s upbringing.
However, when the zingy one-liners and interesting anecdotes stop coming, this is a very melancholy story as having lived her life to the full, she’s left alone in Venice desperately trying sort out where her collection will be displayed after her death. She’s also desperate to rebuild her relationship with Pegeen when she comes to visit. Peggy is keen to extol her daughter’s artistic talents but deep down she knows she’s kidding herself. The melancholy mood is compounded by the playing of some sombre Miles Davis music during the sometimes over-long blackouts when Rosenblatt goes off for a costume change.
Whilst I enjoyed Rosenblatt’s performance, the character’s razor-sharp New York wit and Austin Pendleton’s direction, it really just scratches the surface of this amazing woman’s life. At under ninety minutes without an interval, it’s a pleasant evening at the theatre but I just wish the writer could have peeled away the layers and shown us what lay beneath.
Review by Alan Fitter
After moving to Venice in the late 1940s, Peggy Guggenheim quickly became one of its most glamorous and scandalous residents. Guggenheim collected both art and artists; she was married to pioneering Dadaist Max Ernst, the lover of Samuel Beckett, and champion of Jackson Pollock and Pablo Picasso.
This energetic one-woman show captures Peggy Guggenheim’s punky spirit and examines her choice to live life on her own terms. She dedicated her life to introducing like-minded artists, saving priceless masterpieces, and assembling the world’s finest collection of 20th Century art in her Venetian Palazzo, but at what personal cost?
Set in Venice, the audience will see Guggenheim at four different moments in time: 1963, 1965, 1967 and 1968. Each year offers a snapshot into her vibrant life as she experiences a political situation, an exhibition opening, a loss and a touching moment of reflection.
Woman Before a Glass
Performance Dates Wednesday 17th January – Saturday 3rd February
Running time 90 minutes
Age Guidance 12+
Twitter @JSTheatre, #WomanBeforeAGlass
Director Austin Pendleton
Recreated by Tom McClane-Williamson
Original design Giovanni Villari
Recreated by Erika Rodriguez
Original lighting Stephen Petrilli
Recreated by Ali Hunter
Costume design Catherine Siracusa
Sound Giovanni Villari
Peggy Guggenheim Judy Rosenblatt
Location Jermyn Street Theatre, 16b Jermyn Street, London SW1Y 6ST