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REVIEW: A Picasso | Ensemble Theatre, Sydney

A Picasso is a study of a fascinating historical figure and an example of how good this little Sydney theatre company can be.

A Picasso, by Jeffrey Hatcher, is, from tip to toe, one of the best-produced plays I’ve ever seen at the Ensemble.

On taking our seats, I was reminded how good this theatre is at set design and construction. Lucilla Smith (with help from lighting designer, Nick Higgins) has created a dark, dank, claustrophobic bunker, in subterranean Paris, for Pablito Ruiz’ (Danny Adcock) interrogation by an attractive Nazi (Sharon Millerchip). Co-artistic directors Sandra Bates and Mark Kilmurry have stepped aside to give Nicole Buffoni (otherwise known as Nikki Selby) some time in the sun. And she’s more than earned it. A Picasso is taut, suspenseful, dramatic, biting, tender. Almost all the things one wants any theatre to be.

Despite his smallish frame, Adcock pumps himself up to present a pompous, imposing, bombastic Pablo, just like the real-life persona that’s been so aggressively marketed, not least by the man himself. Fine-featured, budgie-like Millerchip makes for a more challenging suspension of disbelief: her savvy, officiousness, intimidatory manner and bureaucratic painstakingness, as Nazi administrative assistant, Miss Fischer, are in stark relief to her physical stature and carriage. Her accent, too, leans a little too much towards Hogan’s Heroes, but everything else is so good it’s possible to smile and look past these things. Hatcher’s acerbic script goes a long way towards this.

It’s 1941 and the Nazi machine is running as smoothly as a BMW six. In their infinite wisdom, the Fuhrer’s cultural attaches have decided a ritual burning of paintings by degenerates like Picasso, Miro and Klee will make for an amusing entertainment for an exclusive guest list. The party has, by this stage, acquired countless valuable artworks, including Picassos, and has, in its inimitable style, “invited” the then living legend for a chat about a group ‘exhibition’.

Picasso’s been abducted, effectively, from his preferred cafe and, as we know, nothing should come between a man and his coffee, especially if that man is a cantankerous Cubist. His mission, should he choose to accept it (naturally, Fischer makes the proverbial offer that’s too good to refuse), is to authenticate a number of his own paintings, ripped from Jewish homes. But the savvy Spaniard cuts a deal. He’ll sacrifice one of three paintings on the table if he can walk out with the other two. Fischer hesitantly agrees, but Picasso declares all three fakes. Rather than Picasso being broken, Fischer is, confessing he background as an academic and art critic and adoration of everything Picasso. Naturally, he doesn’t miss the opportunity to try and seduce her. But, in the end, he takes pity on her; quite a twist in the tale, given the balance of power. Fischer describes, in vivid detail, the cultured home in which she grew up and goes on to confess her life and those of her family depend on her providing a Picasso as fuel for the Nazis’ bonfire.

The set-up allows plenty of room for expositions of character by the two people in the room. We learn much about Picasso’s childhood: his fraught relationship with his father; the depth of his love for his sister, who died in childhood; his doubts and fears. It’s surprisingly confessional; an attempt, a speculation, one presumes, to try and penetrate the larger-than-life, bullish Picasso persona. Sparks fly between the two, as they reveal their humanity and vulnerability. In the space of ninety minutes, they go head-to-head, matching each other almost blow-by-blow. Seeing two wily, highly intelligent people try and outfox each other is piquant, especially so when one of them is Picasso.

Hatcher’s writing is superb. By way of example, when Fischer points out that the Fuhrer is also an artist, Picasso retorts with “yes, but he has trouble with the borders”. What writer wouldn’t like to claim such a line as his or her own? And there are numerous others just as pithy. “Analyse┬áthis painting as if you were a critic,” Fischer demands. “Alright,” ┬áPicasso replies. “Give me a blindfold.” Both characters are brought vividly (back) to life. There’s a sense of genuine, palpable menace. It’s a fact (though not in evidence in the text, despite apparent fidelity to the historical) that Picasso continued to cast bronze throughout the Nazi occupation of France, a dangerous act of defiance against a prohibited activity. This rebellious spirit triumphs, despite his initial and understandable rattling at being humiliatingly removed from his leisure.

Despite my overwhelming admiration, the script isn’t 100% cohesive, but there’s more than enough, in terms of the visceral and the verbal, to sustain it. Ensemble’s production, moreover, does it profound credit, with two memorable performances (especially Adcock’s) as its backbone. For students of panting and particularly Picasso, there’s also some intelligent, considered commentary on his work, not least Guernica. A Picasso is more than a sketch. It’s an evocation of painterly vivacity.

The details: A Picasso plays the Ensemble Theatre until October 20. Tickets on the company website.

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