My Matisse

Wednesday, 22 November, 2006
Review by: 
Peter Brown

Henri Matisse (1869-1954) was a French artist whose work was noted for the use of bright colours in his paintings, and the power of his draughtsmanship. The son of a grain merchant, Matisse was originally destined for a career in the law, but headed for Paris in 1891 to study art. Eventually, Matisse and his like-minded artistic associates came to be known as 'the wild beasts', which seems a peculiar and unlikely title when one studies pictures of the man himself - even painting in a suit and tie, and described as being 'very formal'.

Howard Ginsberg's play 'My Matisse' focuses on the women who shared Matisse's life (to a greater or lesser extent) in order to provide some insight into Matisse himself. An admirer of Matisse's work, Ginsberg was particularly interested in exploring why the artist continued to produce colourful and happy paintings while his wife and daughter were tortured by the Nazis in World War II.

The resulting play has an all-female cast, where Ginsberg in a way 'paints' portraits of each of the women in Matisse's life, and in doing so draws a rather uncomfortable and unflattering picture of the great artist himself. Although it's clear that Ginsberg has done considerable research, he admits that there were some aspects of Matisse's relationships that had to be 'sketched in' via his imagination. I don't think one can easily quibble with that, bearing in mind the creative nature of the main subject.

Last year, I saw the excellent 'House of Bernada Alba' (Federico García Lorca’s 1936 play translated by David Hare and performed at the National). Like 'My Matisse', Lorca's play also employs an all-female cast, and the two plays have much in common. I hope this won't sound patronising, but there's something about an all-female cast which brings a certain kind of sensitivity to a play, which Lorca obviously understood and which both Howard Ginsberg and director, Ruth Carney, have been able to capitalise on to great effect here too.

Each of the performances from this team of seven outstanding actors is highly distinctive, well-defined and finely honed. For example, Fiz Marcus gave us a wittily independent and forceful Gertrude Stein (writer and art collector) who declares “art is politics; art is war". On the other hand, Sarah Corbett brought a childlike (though not childish) wonder and simplicity to the role of daughter Marguerite, informing us that Matisse “loved his country and his family – from a distance”. But there's a certain degree of commonality in all the performances - something difficult to define precisely but which links them together almost like an invisible thread. Gifted obsessives often have something of a magnetic attraction to others, and this is clearly the case with Matisse. What Ruth Carney has been able to do is to suggest that all these women had something in common, whilst retaining their individual identity and dignity.

A very powerful feature of 'My Matisse' is the exceptional music composed by Alexander Rudd. Hauntingly simple as well as spiritually intense, there are some staggeringly beautiful solo piano chords which are often sufficiently poignant in themselves, but at other times the piano is joined by violin and clarinet accompaniment to evoke a kind of sadness which is immensely moving and touching.

Jermyn Street Theatre has to be the perfect venue for a play of this kind. I often feel like I'm in someone's living room when seeing plays in this cosily intimate venue. Watching 'My Matisse' has much in common with listening to radio – for the most part we're focusing intently on one character at a time, and the proximity of the actors makes you think, like radio, that they're talking directly to you. And the intimacy of the venue seems to enhance the story-telling quality in the dialogue too. I'm not sure that this play would work quite so well in a larger auditorium, though I could certainly envisage it being a very fine radio play.

I doubt that there are any productions - West End or Fringe - that don't exhaust the entire production team in their efforts to bring a perfect product to the stage. And just why some don't work and others do can sometimes be a matter of luck as much as anything else. With 'My Matisse' the pieces of the jigsaw have snapped together perfectly - though I don't think here that luck has anything to do with it. The nature of the theatre, the ability of the actors, a fine script, thoughtful direction and design, and stunning music have combined to produce an elegantly stylish and sensitive production of the very first order. No wonder there were cries of "Bravo" from the audience at the end of the piece - well earned and most justly deserved.

(Peter Brown)

Next review by Chloe Preece

Fiery temperaments and passionate outbursts are somewhat of a cliché when it comes to artists. After all doesn’t all great art need a certain amount of obsession and an inflated ego? This production provides us with a rare and refreshing glimpse into the life of French artist Henri Matisse from the perspective of seven women whose lives all become intertwined with his to a greater or lesser degree.

The narrative is presented to us in chronological order as we are painted a complex picture of the artist but the final impression we are left with is less than flattering. We follow the development of his art as we listen to the memories of these women; through whose tangled tales we are given a comprehensive and multi-faceted portrayal of a man who preferred to shelter himself from reality. The attraction that the artist holds over these women is magnetic and like flies around a flame, they circle the peripheries of his life, often ending up burnt in the process as Matisse follows his muse, shifting from woman to woman, never committing. The echo heard throughout the play is the words “my Matisse,” and while each of these women gave themselves up entirely to Matisse, each is only a passing moment in his art. Like the movement of which he was part of, ‘fauvist’ or ‘beast’ art, there is something of the brute about him as Fiz Marcus playing a powerful and direct Gertrude Stein, points out repeatedly.

Indeed, we are left to wonder what kind of a twisted egoistical maniac would ignore the horrors of two world wars, family and friends persecution at the hands of the Nazis only to stay in his comfort zone and enable his art to stay beautiful and serene. While the ease of ignoring reality and staying in what Gertrude calls a “fantasy land,” is clear, it also becomes evident that he is what Gertrude calls a “moral coward.” The issue at stake is how important is art and what is art’s real role?

In discussing this issue, Matisse’s life-long rivalry to Picasso is highlighted, bringing up a debate on the merit of art: is art for art’s sake enough, is beauty enough? Is Guernica more powerful than one of Matisse’s nudes in a hat because it has a moral center? Does the beauty of Matisse’s art make up for the pain and suffering of the real world? Or is the only reason to hang a Matisse because it matches the color combinations of the room, as Gertrude suggests?

The play much like Matisse’s art is a complex series of colorful dots that create a powerful and poignant whole. All the performances are first-class, each bringing something unique to the production and keeping the storyline in motion, Sophie Shaw as Olga is particularly moving. The themes evoked are thought-provoking, the performances flawless and the audience is left feeling haunted, the music adding superbly to the final effect.

(Chloe Preece)

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