Francis Bacon’s art is among the most revered of the twentieth century. His paintings continue to travel the world’s museums, and his following grows with each year and generation.The power of his work is immediate and compelling, often arousing visceral responses in the viewer before their intellectual, political and historical dimensions can even begin to be explored. Garry Roost’s play is a biography on Bacon that takes cues from stage conventions, as well as from Bacon’s work with its sense of abstraction and energetic expressionism.
Roost’s writing is manic and intense, with a pace and structure that presents a serious challenge to any actor. The unconfined and free-wheeling thought and speech patterns that emerge from the text is frequently incoherent, but fascinating. The words have a definite rhythm that reflects an understanding of the personality it represents, one that is unrelenting, passionate and thoroughly original. An actor usually takes to the stage in order to share narratives and ideas, but Roost is not quite a storyteller on this occasion. His performance focuses on a re-creation of Bacon’s very being that delivers, his idiosyncratic presence and unique mannerisms. We are presented with something of an apparition, accurately imitated and fabulously convincing, but also alienating and at times, puzzling. There is a difference between knowing someone through facts and figures, and gaining insight from observing a creature as it goes about its business, as though from a detached and empirical position. We learn a little about the painter from Roost’s script, but it is from his intuitive portrayal that we acquire a greater appreciation of the man whose legacy has touched many.
We rely on artists to do things differently. It is a thankless task to discover rules and then dismantle them in the public sphere. Audiences need to be disoriented and provoked, even though we prefer to be fed the same formulaic nonsense at every outing. Bacon’s paintings are at their best, upsetting and offensive, and this theatrical manifestation of Pope Head does its best to pay tribute. It is not an easy show to digest, and it is not the most amusing hour of live entertainment, but it does reinforce the memory of a great career and provides the most valuable of all creative endeavours, divine inspiration.