Review: The Marriage of Alice B Toklas by Gertrude Stein

A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose

Gertrude Stein was a pioneer in the Modernist movement, a writer of self-proclaimed genius. Alice B Toklas was her partner in life: a quiet and supportive daily presence.

Edward Einhorn’s play (he is both writer and director) flirts with the absurd, where everyone is pretending to be someone else, or at some point themselves. The marriage itself is as unrealistic as Alice’s dreams, twice conveyed in her own asides.

A four-person cast has Natasha Byrne as a forbidding Stein, secure in her own talent, and Alyssa Simon as a Toklas operating very much in the shadows – famously, her own ‘autobiography’ was written by Stein, who clearly dominates in the relationship.

Production image for The Marriage of Alice B Toklas by Gertrude Stein

Elsewhere, as Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and a cast of other luminaries (and their wives and mistresses), there is excellent work from Kelly Burke and Mark Huckett. The former twists and poses to the manner born, the latter blusters and flusters.

Their respective Picasso and Hemingway are broad comic caricatures, vain, brusque, and, in Hemingway’s case, obsessed with the art of the matador. In a play which thrives on extreme physicality and intimacy, the point is clearly made about who these men are.

In a set filled with white picture frames which signpost each of the scenes (The Courtship, Picasso Brings A Gift, Money, etc) we are reminded that this is a world of art and artifice where characters are drawn larger than life.

Set out as a French farce, The Marriage … sometimes gets caught up in ponderous prose. Characters come and go in a flash – Eliot, Pound, Wilder, Joyce. Only Sylvia Beach is permitted to disrupt the flow of masculine genius to which Stein feels she belongs. Otherwise wives and mistresses belong in the boudoir or the kitchen.

Production shot from The Marriage of Alice B Toklas by Gertrude Stein

So we are all invited to the wedding of a lifetime: conducted by Carl Van Vechten, no less, participant in a huge amount of correspondence with Stein. Their vows are sweet, yet amusing, but a coda at the end of the play details Toklas’s descent into destitution after Stein’s death.

The Marriage of … is a play of many parts. There is even champagne to celebrate this imaginary union. This is a play of the imagination, where genius, religion, misogyny, homophobia, racism rub shoulders with pride, money, and fame.

Ultimately it is a love story of two lesbians pushing against the norms of their times. Whether or not Stein really spoke as she wrote is immaterial. After all, this is Einhorn’s play pretending to be a play by Stein.

You can watch The Marriage of Alice B Toklas by Gertrude Stein at Jermyn Street Theatre until 16 April. Buy your tickets here.

Image credit: Ali Wright