Given the economic climate, it is encouraging to find new theatres opening. After the Bridge comes the Playground: a former bus depot and experimental studio, off Ladbroke Grove in west London, that has been turned into a handsome theatre at a cost of £270,000. It seats 200, has an excellent cafe and has already functioned as a counselling centre in the wake of the disaster at the nearby Grenfell Tower. Greatly as I welcome it, the opening show, mixing live action and film, turns out to be an elegantly staged curiosity about the relationship between Picasso and the women who were so crucial to his life and art.
The show was written by Terry d’Alfonso, an American film-maker and playwright who died in 2016, and you feel she was torn between awe at Picasso’s energy and horror at his use and abuse of women. Over the course of 70 minutes, the image that stays with you is of Picasso as the minotaur: a mixture of man and monster, with a bull’s head, who feeds off human flesh. He himself is given to oracular statements such as “I am a shaman.” Meanwhile, we see how three women, in particular, were captivated by Picasso while being sacrificed to his creative drive: the model Marie-Thérèse Walter, the poet Geneviève Laporte and the pottery-seller Jacqueline Roque all pay a high price for loving Picasso. On film we also see his first wife, the dancer Olga Khokhlova, being driven to despair at his serial infidelities.
What the show never fully explains is why, if Picasso were such an egotistical monster, so many women were attracted to him. It also gives no hint of the playfulness and humour to which his admittedly friendly biographer, Roland Penrose, amply testifies.
But the piece is beautifully staged by Michael Hunt on a circular sandpit and eloquently acted. Peter Tate, co-founder of the Playground, unflinchingly portrays Picasso’s self-belief, bull-like power and absolute dedication to his art. Claire Bowman (Marie-Thérèse), Adele Oni (Geneviève) and, most especially, Alejandra Costa as the protective, adoring Jacqueline capture the varied natures of the women who inspired him. You just feel that the play started out as an arraignment of Picasso but that somewhere along the line the prosecuting counsel became hypnotised by her target.