About Leo review – vivid portrait of a painter who reframed art

The young Leonora Carrington was an English debutante who, at 20, ran off with the German painter, Max Ernst, a man more than twice her age and already married at the time of their first meeting. The old Leonora Carrington was one of Mexico’s most celebrated surrealist painters, a pioneering feminist, and also, as Alice Allemano’s soulful script points out, a difficult woman to pin down.

In the opening scene, a fresh-faced British journalist, Eliza Prentice, tracks an elderly Carrington down in Mexico City and persuades her to be interviewed about being Ernst’s “muse”. Eliza begins by asking her about her early life, to which Carrington replies: “I was born a horse.” What sounds initially like confusion – or evasion – turns out to be the prelude to a story about love, art, sexual politics and self-determination in 1930s Europe, vividly remembered and dramatised on parallel stages that bring together the old Leonora as she remembers her past and the young Leonora as she enacts it.

Spoilt lovers … Nigel Whitmey as Max Ernst and Phoebe Pryce as the younger Leonora. Photograph: Robert Workman

Susan Tracy gives a sensational performance as the older Carrington. She is strong-willed, passionate, impish and curmudgeonly by turns. The younger Carrington (Phoebe Pryce) is a less rounded character, and she and Ernst (Nigel Whitmey) appear like beautiful, spoilt lovers, speaking their love with sometimes strained lyricism. Their dialogue also carries, rather too clunkily, Carrington’s intellectual refusal to be the female vessel or muse to the “great male artist” and other ideas that would guide her later life in Mexico as a painter, novelist and founding member of the women’s liberation movement.

But these dissonances seem small in the face of the play’s greater achievements. This is Allemano’s first professionally produced full-length play and it showcases a writer of great promise. Erika Paola Rodriguez Egas’s stagecraft is also as imaginative as it is exquisite. For almost all of the play, the old and young Carringtons are both on set, the younger woman with Ernst on a raised dais, the older woman sitting at a table with Eliza, drinking tea and, later, tequila.

The drama bears the sense of a surreal dream, with momentary flashes of light that show human figures with animal heads. (Carrington saw herself as a horse; Ernst’s artistic alter ego was a bird.) The sound is just as surreal, with horses’ hooves reverberating across the auditorium, giving the unnerving sense of the elderly Carrington being stalked by her past desires and demons. This gem of a play is as beautiful as it is profound.

At Jermyn Street theatre, London, until 29 September.

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