British actor Garry Roost stars as Francis Bacon in this one-man show at the Old Fitz Theatre. He saunters around a triptych painting for most of the performance, bringing out Bacon’s closeted campiness with a trace of an East Ender accent mixed with intellectual sass.
Of course, Bacon is one of the big icons of 20th century art. His violent paintings induce a physical reaction, arousing both curiosity and repulsion. This is very much how Roost inhabits the artist – he is charming and then suddenly aggressive. At various points, he clutches his face in mimicry of the distorted heads Bacon became well known for.
Whether intentional or not, Roost seems to parody the idea of the tortured genius; the Modernist trailblazer who is both self-indulgent and self-deprecating. Some of the most satisfying and humorous moments come from the artist rebutting his critics – “Not sufficiently Surrealist? I’m the fucking impersonation of Surrealism!”
As Bacon comes to terms with his sexuality, he speaks about Weimar Germany and the “sordid and sexual gravitas” offered by Berlin. He picks up men in public urinals, confessing his paternal fantasies and taste for macho men. Roost also assumes a handful of other characters – buyers of Bacon’s work, his friends and various lovers.
As much as this play presents a different portrait of Bacon, it is also a different portrait of late Modernism. Obsessed with chaos, Bacon seems captivated by the darker side of human nature. He plumbs his own pain and searches for a new way of making art after the horrors of war.
As part of the Mardi Gras program, this play will likely be celebrated for Roost’s portrayal of Bacon as irrepressibly homosexual. And then there are his optimistic parting words. It’s an impressive script and committed performance. Roost fleshes out what we know about Francis Bacon and injects it with wit and vitality.
Pope Head – The Secret Life Of Francis Bacon is playing at the Old Fitz Theatre until Friday March 6.