Modern Man

Roger Kirby
New End Theatre
(2003)

There has been something of a recent vogue for fictionalised plays about artists' lives. Vincent in Brixton has been wildly successful in both London and New York while there has also been a play about Picasso's Women, and at least three about Salvador Dali.

Now American lawye, Roger Kirby has brought the world premiere of his play about "Manet and his painted ladies" to New End. This follows the trend in assuming that it is impossible to understand an artist, or even to be one, without an obsession with women.

In the case of Édouard Manet, possibly the first "modern artist" his Three Graces, or muses are all desperately in love with him. As a result, his bitter wife, Suzanne (Julie-Kate Olivier), main model Victorine, a mistress of the chocolate éclair (Carolyn Tomkinson) and fellow artist Berthe Morisot (Kate Steavenson-Payne), who seduces with her paintings, were all destined for disappointment.

The first line of this Remembrance of Things Past set in 1883 during the scandalous artist's last few hours, says much about its eponymous anti-hero, "Man is nothing, work is everything". Manet, played by Gideon Turner, is unable to offer love and all that he seems able do is take from these women. He treats each badly, playing one off against the other and, ultimately, they are all unhappy as they first find and then lose his affection while battling with each other.

One of the highlights of this production by Caitriona McLaughlin is a superb, low-budget set designed by Nicolai Hart Hansen, seemingly a talent with a great future. This moves from the death-wheelchair of the syphilitic artist back in time to his wonderful studio complete with brilliant murals. Add to this some wonderful set-piece depictions of Manet's paintings such as Olympia (oddly a dressed version) and the play is often visually striking.

The biography is also interesting as it depicts Manet as a heartless man unable to commit himself to other human beings in the same way as he can to his art. Kirby makes the artist speak very portentously about his work and his beliefs and it is left to the women to anchor his life. He helps to put Manet into historical perspective by dropping names such as Zola, Degas and Beaudelaire.

Kirby has claimed in the programme notes that "this entertainment aims to respect Manet's preference for the invented work, however fanciful and imperfect, above the scrivening hand ". On occasions, the playwright's art seems to overwhelm that of his subject, but, overall, this is an enlightening look into the life of a very popular artist and contains good performances, especially from the three put-upon women. Gideon Turner is best when declaiming about art and is slightly less convincing in portraying his character's personal relationships.

The play works very well in the intimate studio theatre at New End where members of the audience can almost feel that they have entered the studio, not to mention the private life, of not only one great artist, but also a second in the making, Berthe Morisot.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher