Frying Bacon: Review of Théâtre Excentrique’s Pope Head
The first thing that should be said about Garry Roost’s one man portrayal of Francis Bacon’s life is that it fails to engage. You will be bored. This is a shame because the life of Francis Bacon was anything but dull. For most of us we only know Bacon through his visceral, dark and disturbing portraiture. Pope Head (2014) is Roost’s attempt to tell the story of the name behind the canvas.
There can be no doubt that the play is well researched; Roost even bears a striking resemblance to the painter. However, it is a piece very much for Bacon aficionados. If you know the story of Bacon and if you love that story, this is the play for you. If you know nothing about Bacon, you’ll still know next to nothing about him after having seen this. So what went wrong? It’s the script. The piece is erratic, fragmented and disjointed. Roost bounces his story all over the place; he’s the only person on stage, and there’s next to no set. It takes a great deal of concentration to follow the progression, and as soon as you catch up, he’s already talking about something else.
Of course you discern glimpses of Bacon’s life: his strained relationship with his father, his philosophical inclination towards nihilism, and his various sexual escapades. But none of it really hangs together, and we don’t get a solid sense of how it builds towards a cohesive story. There’s a point in the piece where he says he was pleased when the critics hated his work, because at least that meant they were responding to something. Oh, if only this was the case here.
Garry Roost has the stage to himself for the hour duration that is Pope Head. Roost plays Francis Bacon, the enigmatic, Irish born painter, known for his graphic and emotionally charged pieces. Roost is right for Bacon. He looks and feels like the Eddie Izzard of dramatic monologue. He melds the feminine with the masculine in order to create a complex homosexual form; here we see the Bacon that drifted about in London’s underworld, the Bacon who saw humans as a decaying carcass, and the Bacon who lived for passion and sex. Roost is obviously skilled; he can certainly deliver a punchline but his pace is too quick – the audience finds itself straining to keep up with the dialogue let alone understand the story. Ultimately one wonders whether this is largely a personal interest project, with Roost beautifully typecast in this rather colourful yet dramatic recounting of Bacon’s life.
Part of Roost’s objective was no doubt to capture the personality and intensity of Bacon, rather than to tell the story of his life. And likewise, the technique does represent a certain attempt to recreate the feel of his art on stage. He certainly deserves points for this, but when all is said and done it doesn’t make for consistently entertaining theatre.
There is no doubt a fascinating story to be told about Francis Bacon’s life, but this is not the way to do it.
Pope Head is playing at the Old Fitz Hotel until the 6th of March. For more information see: http://www.oldfitztheatre.com/pope-head/