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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
La Casa Azul
by Lizzie Loveridge

Surrealism my arse. Surrealism is when you open the wardrobe, and out comes a lion and all you wanted was clean underpants.
-- Frida
La Casa Azul
Sophie Faucher as Frida Kahlo (Photo: Erick Labbé)
La Casa Azul is largely a biographical piece about the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, written by the French Canadian actress Sophie Faucher using many of Kahlo's own words from her letters and journal. Canadian director (acclaimed seems too much of a cliché, but acclaimed is what he is) Robert Lepage interprets her incredible life story in his distinct visual style. Add to this palette of talent the remarkable Neil Bartlett's words and the resulting piece is a work of art which pleases on many levels. This scripted production is unusual for Lepage because his work usually takes a devised form.

Frida Kahlo's colourful life was blighted by an early horrific accident which left her in pain and crippled, led to many operations and which may have caused her numerous miscarriages. She lived in Mexico at the time of the Russian and Mexican Revolutions and travelled to the United States with her husband. She was married to the foremost Mexican painter of murals Diego Rivera and mixed with artists, politicians and celebrities. Famously she had an affair with Leon Trotsky. She struggled to come to terms with her own body, her pathologically unfaithful husband, her sense of injustice and her art. "I took my tears and I turned them into paintings". Her most famous paintings are her self portraits, a serious faced woman with heavy eyebrows, looking directly at us, with an elaborate hairstyle of braids and flowers and ribbons, wearing bright Mexican clothes and with rings on every manicured finger. "Make up covers nothing. Your face is aa map , it shows everywhere you have ever been."

Robert Lepage has made Rivera's and Kahlo's art a part of this production. The images are wonderful as is the Mexican and classical music. There are the Aztec blue walls of Frida's house. Often Diego Rivera (Patric Saucier) is painting four times life size murals on a stepladder while the picture is projected on a screen so we can see both artist and embryonic painting. In an opening scene Frida (Sophie Faucher) narrates while another Frida (Lise Roy), paint brush in hand, sits with her back to us in a wheelchair while her easel changes colour and she explains what each colour means to her. Lepage is master of the visual effect. When Rivera takes a sledgehammer to a mural, rejected by Nelson Rockefeller because it contains a portrait of Lenin, we see the cracks appear and the image shatters, literally blowing apart in front of our eyes. Frida's four poster bed pivots up to reveal the wooden frame for a portrait. The water in an old fashioned bath is bathed in red light as if it is turning to blood as Frida miscarries. In an image of lacerating pain, Kahlo is suspended above a hospital bed from a harness round her neck as they attempt to mend her broken bones. Who could forget the staging of Rivera's treatment in Russia for testicular cancer using a pistol to represent Rivera's manhood? . . .  and yes, if you must know, he does get to shoot again. In the text the inimitable Bartlett describes the Russian woman doctor as a Barbie Dominatrix.

Sophie Faucher, the author, also takes the main part of Frida herself. We see her as Kahlo, the young student taking her art to Rivera for comment, through personal tragedy, to an introduction to troilism with Rivera and the photographer Tina Moditti (Lise Roy) to depression at her separation from Rivera, reconciliation, and to illness and death. Patric Saucier as Rivera is a big bear of a man with a salacious appetite on the same scale as one of his murals. Lise Roy, helped by wigs and costume, takes on all the other parts from to La Pelona, a chameleon-like Mexican representation of Death to Kahlo's sister Christina to Trotsky.

La Casa Azul is a whirlwind tour through Kahlo's life. She suffers physically because of the accident, she suffers psychologically because of her tempestuous relationship with Rivera's personification of machismo and she cares deeply about the poor, the disenfranchised at a world level. In ninety minutes it may feel as if we are skim reading her life, quickly passing over one drama to concentrate on another. The visual strength of this play is also its weakness. I suspect in rereading Bartlett's excellent text I will have time to reflect on Frida's life to a greater depth than was allowed by the intensity of the visual nature of the performance.

La Casa Azul is probably coming to Berkley, Davis and Los Angeles in April and May 2003.

Goodbye My Friduchita a Curtain Up review of another play about Frida Kahlo

La Casa Azul
Written by Sophie Faucher
Translated by Neil Bartlett
Directed by Robert Lepage

With: Sophie Faucher, Lise Roy, Patric Saucier
Set Designer: Carl Fillion
Lighting Designer: Sonoyo Nishikawa
Costume Designer: Véronique Borboën

Produced by Ex Machina
Running time: One hour thirty minutes with no interval
Box Office: 020 8741 2311
Booking to 26th October 2002
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 15th October 2002 performance at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, London W6 (Tube Station: Hammersmith)
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