Picasso may have been one of the greatest artists of the modern age, but some say he was also a bully and an abuser when it came to many of the women in his life. In her new play, writer Terry d'Alfonso attempts to put the artist's problematic relationships in full focus.
But it's still Picasso who is very much front and centre here as opposed to the women he mistreated. The beguiling, bald-headed genius stands in the middle of a sand-filled circle robustly rebutting accusations made against him by women who stand at the edges of the stage. It's a shame: couldn't the women have been given a proper chance to offer their version of events?
That's not the only thing that's a shame in this underwhelming and baggy piece which is the inaugural show in the new Playground Theatre in west London. It takes the form of a kind of abstract semi-trial situation, where Picasso is back from the dead to face three significant women in his life. Marie Therese Walter was seduced by him at the age of 17 and bore the artist a child while he was married to someone else, Genevieve Laporte was 24 when she entered into an affair with the 70 year-old and Jacqueline Roque - his final wife - married him when she was 34 and he 79.
The dialogue is overblown and trite and there are many hackneyed recurring images and tropes throughout the text which place Picasso on a pedestal. He's constantly compared to the sun – bright, burning with passion and dangerous – and a bull – muscular, forceful and formidable. It all seems at odds with the show's main intention - to unveil just how distasteful the artist's relationships were. Picasso absolutely pulls its punches over whether to hold the the man up as a flawed genius or just hideously nasty when it came to the opposite sex.
It's also very clunky: there's a lot of background information to get across about Picasso's life, his marriages, his children and his artistic inspiration. This is strong-armed uncomfortably into the piece, rather than woven delicately into its fabric. The worst moment comes when the women battle between themselves about who had the most influence on his artistic output, they seem like angry, jealous harpies.
Due to the clumsy script, the three women performers are left to struggle with one-dimensional characters and seemingly little direction from Michael Hunt. As a result everything feels emptily melodramatic. From the off – where the three women appear entirely veiled as they float on the periphery of the action – it all feels too willfully surreal.
Matthew Ferguson's video interludes – which play flashbacks of Picasso's life – offer diverting moments. But they don't work well within the piece. It means Picasso sits somewhere awkwardly between a bioplay and an attempt at holding the painter to account. Yet it fails at each of these things. A disappointing beginning for the Playground Theatre.
Picasso runs at the Playground Theatre until 25 November.