Publicity image for Dora Versus Picasso
Publicity image for Dora Versus Picasso

Dora Marr was one of the great muses of Pablo Picasso’s life: a photographer who understood his art, a woman who captivated him from their first meeting where she repeatedly stabbed a cafe table with a knife, cutting her finger.

The incident is depicted here, although more could have been made of it beyond the act of pulling back a glove to kiss the wound. Picasso, in fact, kept Marr’s bloodstained glove for the rest of his life. It was the catalyst of a tempestuous and creative obsession on both sides.

Dora Versus Picasso attempts to shine a light on this relationship and to reinstate Marr as the creative force she undoubtedly was – an exhibition of her work is currently running at the Tate Modern, promising to be the most comprehensive ever curated. She politicised him, he humanised her, and that’s the core of their long association.

Dora Marr
Dora Marr

Picasso should appear as a force of nature, a towering creative, an exemplar of sexual energy. Why else would a succession of women – three depicted in this play – submit themselves to becone his mistress? In Kevin G Drury’s portrayal there is more of a sense of inevitable boredom at his need to seek out constantly polygamous relationships.

Dora Maar (played by co-writer and co-director Claire-Monique Martin), described by Picasso himself as “the weeping woman” because of her emotional instability, seems unnervingly calm, her only crack appearing when she engages in a (factual) fight with Marie-Therese Walter, the earlier muse who inspired the artist and bore him a child.

Adapted from Cecil Jenkins’s novel (Emma Jesse being the other co-adapter and director), the writing sometimes takes wing (a bullfight is described as a “crucifixion and a circus”, modern art is “madness, masturbation and wallpaper design”), but there are scenes which confused me. In act two, is Dora undergoing shock therapy when restrained, and if so, why is there no other reference to it?

Simon Chappell (Sabartes) and Isobel Young in rehearsal
Simon Chappell (Sabartes) and Isobel Young in rehearsal

As Picasso’s other muses, Marie-Therese and Francoise Gillot, Isobel Wood and Samantha Gray do well with parts which are fairly peripheral to the narrative. Both are presented as very young but it is telling that Picasso gets a free pass for his exploitation of women in the name of art: Dora refers to “gynaecological” sketches of Marie-Therese as “making her more of a child”, which is disturbing but not followed up.

Hannah Williams’s set and costume design, and Anna Joseph’s lighting design, are simple but effective, with backlit screens, a white drape (which briefly becomes baby Mia), and brightly toned clothes. It feels period perfect for the 1930s, although the ten-year period being depicted could perhaps have been signposted with more clarity, and I would have liked a sense of Picasso’s Cubism in the design.

Picasso’s great work. Guernica, is born in a tantalising scene which closes act one, but it is frustrating that we never see anything of it in progress or at completion. There’s a good scene early on where Maar climbs on to Picasso’s lap to snap photos of him – photos which she manipulates to make him grotesque – but we don’t see the paintings he makes of Dora which are hinted at in the show’s publicity, equally otherworldly.

Dora and Picasso
Dora and Picasso

Last night’s performance was affected by the audibility of some scenes: partially due to the noisy fans which attempt to keep the space cool, partially due to directorial decisions to speak some lines sotto voce or turned away from the audience. If this can be reconsidered, the opening scene in particular may have more immediate power.

Ultimately, Dora Versus Picasso is a laudable attempt to bring a female artist out of the shadow of her lover. It made me think of Carrington, in which the intensely platonic association between Dora Carrington and Lytton Strachey was explored and depicted in the 1995 film. Also on film around the same time, Anthony Hopkins portrayed the difficult role of the manipulative artist in Surviving Picasso, which may well stand up to reappraisal.

Dora Versus Picasso continues at the Drayton Arms Theatre until 30 November. Production photo credits Stephanie Claire.

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