Studies for a Portrait

White Bear Theatre Club, 6 January – 1 February 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

All four characters in Studies for a Portrait are homosexual men, but the overriding theme of the play is not homosexuality. Whatever might be wrong with it, the play deserves some praise for reminding people that gay characters can explore and embody other important issues than their own sexuality.

Celebrated American artist Julian Barker (Martin Bendel), a contemporary of Warhol and Bacon, is dying of pancreatic cancer. While Julian attempts gamely to continue painting, drinking and shagging until he drops dead, politicians, admirers and former lovers emerge from the woodwork to squabble over his legacy – both financial and emotional.

Each has a genuine claim over Julian, whether as a commodity, an inspiration, a benefactor, or simply as a friend. Which of these claims, the play asks, is most valid? To whom does a public figure’s legacy rightfully belong – to himself, to his public, or to his bereaved?

Julian is a largely offstage presence, cloistering himself in his studio and allowing his devotees to fight amongst themselves. Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher resists confrontational histrionics in favour of calculating nastiness, enabled by some delicious turns of phrase from playwright Daniel Reitz. Julian’s current and former lovers, Chad (James Holmes) and Marcus (David Price), have an especially honest and vicious enmity.

Beyond these enjoyably frank exchanges the play is heavy on flimsily motivated exposition. Backstory details are revealed in monologue to the subject, who presumably already knows his own life story, but sits through the lecture anyway for the audience’s benefit. Spreadbury-Maher’s directorial understatement allows the dialogue to shine when it’s good, but leaves the stage too static when exposition slows the pace.

Stylistically and thematically, Studies for a Portrait breaks no new ground, but it does attempt to sow something worthwhile there. Every play like this one is another step towards relocating non-heterosexual people from the LGBTQ Theatre bracket into the artistic mainstream. It isn’t an overt call to arms, but it’s one more raised fist in an invisible revolution.

Written by Daniel Reitz

Crew includes Adam Spreadbury-Maher (director)

Cast includes Martin Bendel (Julian), Stephen Hagan (Justin), James Holmes (Chad) and David Price (Marcus)

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