For fans of Lucian Freud, Carla Goodman’s set design for Looking at Lucian is an exercise in spot-the-painting-that-appeared-in geekdom. Using forced perspective to expand the tiny space of the Ustinov’s stage, Carla Goodman has painstakingly recreated Freud’s studio. Her decision to do so was no doubt helped by the significant amount of Freud’s paintings featuring parts of his workspace, plus numerous photos taken by, among others, Freud’s assistant David Dawson. It’s all here if you look for it: the piles of dirty rags that repeatedly appear in his works, including Triple Portrait (1986/7); the clunky unlaced boots of Painter Working, Reflection (1993) and the living palette of a painted wall in The Painter Surprise by a Naked Admirer (2005). The walls are a particularly evocative part of the set. Layers of browns, greys and reds dapple one on top of the other, but cutting through the cloud of colour is always the whitest of whites, Freud’s beloved Cremnitz White that created both the tone and texture of the skin in his paintings.
Like Carla Goodman, Alan Franks has also done his homework. This new one-man play is almost entirely a recounting of the artist’s biography. Woven into an imagined conversation with a young female sitter, the monologue describes everything from his early life in Berlin near the Tiergarten, to his later days of fame being commissioned to paint the Queen of England. As with many biopics on screen or stage, possibly the worst audience for this are existing devotees. The endless anecdotes that Franks’ script stitches together are all the familiar ones included in any scholarly or general interest biography. If, however, you don’t already know them, they’re worth hearing at least once. Before you get to the Jagger-and-Jerry years, there’s school expulsions, a brief involvement with the Navy and a friendship with the Kray brothers.
Despite the inherent problems of the format – one being that the monologue lacks a basic dramatic arc save for a minor event in the final quarter, and another being the unavoidable falsity of a one-sided conversation in any piece of theatre – Henry Goodman provides an engaging performance that captures several of Freud’s physical quirks. His slightly curved back and deliberately placed left hand when standing studiously replicate that of Freud when photographed or painted. His main party trick, however is to do the famous Freud stare. I once read a wonderfully loving quote in Vogue by Bella Freud describing her father’s particularly intense way of looking. Recovering the exact article eludes me, but the actor loads his recreation of it with a mixture of venom, shock and almost-tenderness.
Both Henry Goodman’s performance and Franks’ text provide an alternative to the popular image of Freud as a womanising painter of ‘cruel’ images. The impetus behind doing so should be applauded. Like many others, Freud partly fell foul of the Tabloids simply because he liked his privacy and gave exceptionally few interviews, leaving the journalists, seemingly almost out of spite, to embellish what few things they did know.
Additionally, the view of his paintings as unrelentingly harsh to those depicted is misguided. Not least, because painting fat, body hair and a similarly between humans and animals is only ‘cruel’ if you subscribe to commercialised conventions of beauty that see fat, body hair and a similarity between humans and animals as inherently awful. Viewed through a different lens, Freud’s painting is a brilliantly and beautifully non-conformist approach to the human body.
There’s also a tenderness to many of his works that is forgotten in preference for people shrieking about Kate Moss or the large body of Sue Tilley in Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995). One of my favourite Freud paintings is the gorgeous, sinuous Pregnant Girl (1960/1). Looking at it, you can almost chart the course of the breath inhaled through her mouth, part-open in sleep, as it flows down to the cavity of the chest between the rounded, exposed shoulders. Since it is Freud’s art, not his biography, that often reveals best this gentler side, it is a shame that his works are entirely excluded from this production; indeed it’s notable that the few canvases on stage all face resolutely away from the audience.
Perhaps because of this, Looking at Lucian fails to fully convince as an alternative portrait of the artist. Another reason for this is that, whilst actively denouncing the Tabloid invasion of his privacy, the play itself deals just as unashamedly in celebrity gossip and an endless parade of name-dropping. The intention behind the play is worthwhile one, and it makes a welcome addition to the legacy of Freud in attempting an increasingly multifaceted understanding of him. However, if we want to continue this approach, perhaps the next best step will be stopping looking at Lucian all together, and instead taking one of those famous hard stares at his art.
Looking at Lucian is on until 2 September 2017 at the Ustinov Studio in Bath. Click here for more details.