THEATREXCENTRIQUE’S ‘POPE HEAD’


Theatrexcentrique’s ‘Pope Head’, written and performed by Garry Roost, is a chaotic and energetic bio-piece on the life of Irish born painter, Francis Bacon. As someone who isn’t incredibly familiar with the personality of Francis Bacon, I was interested in what I would discover from the performance. I knew enough to know he was a Surrealist visionary and sometimes classic idiom maker (“Champagne for my real friends. Real pain for my sham friends”). Bacon’s turbulent life no doubt makes for some intriguing and exciting writing, however interestingly, the writing was probably the production’s weakest point. Needless to say, the performance is enlightening, at times engrossing, funny and horrifying.

The set is appropriately simple; white floors and walls, with a triptych centre stage. The panels are spaced so Roost can walk between and behind the paintings, often going out of sight to reappear again a second later, sometimes transformed into a new personality. These transformations, made through physical and vocal characterisation and slight costume changes, occur just as much in front of the panels as behind. The volatility and schizophrenic nature of Roost’s performance only adds to the chaotic and tumultuous nature of Bacon’s psyche.

Roost’s Bacon is a breathy, dislikeable yet scathingly amusing character. Often manipulative and uncaring, he is also an intelligent, tortured soul with clear tastes on art, criticism and sexuality. Roost brings him to life admirably. There is something satisfying about watching an actor work hard on stage, and Roost certainly does, deftly transitioning between characters in varying impassioned states.

One thing that felt lacking, as I mentioned earlier, is the writing. There are moments of clarity, but largely the text feels encumbered by a desire to express all, to tell too many perspectives of a story. Roost’s text would have serviced the performance better had it more clearly delineated between timelines, characters and ideas. At times this creates pleasing and achievable riddles to solve and discover as an audience member (Who am I seeing now? When does this take place?), but largely it resulted in distancing the audience from the narrative and the character.

Some original music by Matthew Williams and Eddie Gray, a close friend of Francis Bacon, was also featured throughout the piece. While at times it felt unnecessary (dark, unnerving soundscapes over what was already dark and unnerving parts of the performance), Eddie Gray’s string compositions were at times a delightful counterpoint to such a troubled character.

Overall I enjoyed the production. While there were problems with the text and its clarity, dramaturgically it was well produced and director Paul Garnault made some lovely decisions with its staging. The main talking point however is Gary Roost’s performance. He is energetic, tortured and breathes a frenzied life into a complicated character. The production is worth seeing if only to experience the commitment and energy in his performance.
Pope Head runs from the 24th of February till the 6th of March at the Old Fitz.
Tuesday – Saturday 9:30pm, Sunday 7pm.
Tickets: $20 + Booking fee.

By James Harding.

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