The last time I saw 'Frida Kahlo Viva La Vida' was when it was being previewed before heading for the Edinburgh Festival in 2008. At the time, it was still being polished and honed. But even at that early stage in the production's development, there was something distinctly special about it. Since then, it's played to packed houses in Edinburgh, obtained rave reviews and garnered awards. It's now back in London for a further well-earned run at the Oval House Theatre.
Frida Kahlo (1907-54) was a Mexican painter who had far more than her fair share of suffering. Struck down by polio at the age of 6, the disease left her with one leg thinner than the other, forcing her to wear long dresses in adulthood to disguise the deformity. And if that wasn't enough, fate was to deal her yet another catastrophic blow when, in her late teens, she was involved in a motor accident between the bus she was travelling on and a trolley car. The accident left her with horrific injuries almost too numerous to catalogue. A metal handrail went right through her abdomen and her uterus. Subsequently she had countless restorative operations, but was more often than not in severe pain, and spent much of her life in hospital.
Kahlo is well known for her paintings (many of them self-portraits), and her relationship with fellow Mexican, muralist Diego Rivera. They were married twice, but frequently lived apart which is indicative of the stormy nature of their relationship. Both had extra-marital relationships including one between Rivera and Kahlo's sister.
Frida Kahlo is played by Gaêl Lecornec who has already received huge critical acclaim for the role. And it's all well-deserved. In the intervening period since I last saw Ms Lecornec as Frida, she's grown enormously in both confidence and stature. Teasing the audience with offers of drinks and adlibbing in response to their comments, here's an actress in a role which she completely identifies with and is in total control of. It's an inspiring and compelling performance.
As a director friend remarked only the other day, one-actor shows – monologues if you prefer – are not easy to direct or for an actor to realise. Gaêl Lecornec captivates the audience by getting deep inside the character of Frida Kahlo, to produce a performance that is tragic, funny, tantalising, poignant, sometimes mischievous, and at times almost heartbreaking. In fact, the range of emotions on display in this 75 minute piece is almost too much to handle, and it's surprising that any actor can shift so fluidly between such strong emotions. No wonder then that Gaêl Lecornec has been dubbed an actor with enormous potential for the future.
Striking though Ms Lecornec's performance is, this production is very much a team effort, resulting in a hugely creative and vivid endeavour. Humberto Robles' carefully-crafted script avoids a linear, chronological approach yet keeps the momentum going throughout with twists and turns in the structure, the introduction of new characters and biographical aspects at strategic points, and by mixing humour with pathos in a non-sentimental way.
Sophie Mosberger's well-executed design still frames the piece in an uncluttered but interesting environment. When the play starts, there are objects covered in dust sheets which are removed at various points in the play. Two of the objects are reproductions of Kahlo's paintings: 'The Two Fridas' (1939) and 'Henry Ford Hospital' (1932) which shows Frida in hospital in the USA after complications arose with a pregnancy.
Mesmerising and compelling, 'Frida Kahlo Viva La Vida' is a treat by any theatrical standards and I suspect it has a long shelf-life ahead of it yet. Whether you know anything or nothing about Frida Kahlo, this really is a must-see.