James Holmes, Martin Bendel, Stephen Hagan, David Price
Daniel Reitz’s new play, Studies for a Portrait, concerns Julian Barker, a terminally ill artist who ranks alongside Andy Warhol and Francis Bacon.
But it is really a study in what makes people tick.
Set entirely in the house that Julian is spending his final days in, feverishly painting to the end, it witnesses the clash of several characters, each of whom has his own agenda, though it is not always clear what that is.
Chad is Julian’s lover whose motives in protecting the artist from harm in life, and his legacy once he is gone, may or may not derive from self interest.
Marcus, Julian’s former lover, feels he deserves a painting from Julian that he co-produced, but we never know whether he is interested in it for the memories, the money he can sell it for, or the artistic recognition it can help him gain. Meanwhile, Chad’s own lover, the twenty-three year old underwear model, Justin, sometimes seems to want Chad all for himself, but also uses him as a way of gaining access to the great artist.
In each scene, we consequently find ourselves dissecting each man’s character to decide what is really driving them on. Is it greed, fame, love for the other man or a love of art?
The experience is enhanced by a superb cast, and a script that reveals Reitz’s intimate knowledge of the art world. Indeed, it is his command of its realities that make certain assertions such as Julian being one of ‘The Three Js’ (along with Jackson Pollock and Jasper Johns) feel natural rather than overblown. Similarly, when Chad recalls how Julian once took him around New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) at midnight to show him his paintings, this reflects the fact that David Hockney, for example, can access such galleries at any hour.
In Studies for a Portrait the personalities of the protagonists count for as much as their actions in enabling them to achieve what they want. A reasonable request can seem anything but when uttered with a self-righteous tone of voice, and all four actors excel in presenting multi-faceted characters. James Holmes is a convincing Chad, whom often appears dictatorial to achieve his own ends, but probably acts out of a genuine desire to preserve Julian’s legacy. His philosophy is, to an extent, ‘what I have, I hold’, but Holmes’ portrayal also helps us to appreciate that Chad has had to work hard for everything in life.
David Price delivers the lines of Marcus, Julian’s former lover who is now penniless, so that, rather than appreciate his legitimate grievances, we dismiss him as whinging and self-centred. The moments when Marcus revels in ‘twisting the knife’ into Chad are wonderful, whilst Price also excels in the frequently overlooked art of appearing convincing when listening, as opposed to speaking, on stage.
Martin Bendel presents Julian as a stirrer, and his final meeting with Marcus sees him playing with his former lover’s desire to own the painting they both created, before declaring it will go to MoMA instead. He takes the opportunity in the same scene, however, to take Chad down a peg or two, even though he loves him deeply. Then, from his reported off-stage antics, we learn that Julian is an even more depressed and difficult man than we ever see for ourselves.
With Stephen Hagan also revealing Justin’s hidden depths, all of the characters feel so complex that I doubt two audience members will ever emerge from the theatre interpreting each in exactly the same way. The opportunity, however, to judge them all for yourself is surely just one more reason to see this superb new play from a writer who truly knows his art.