On a second visit to the Summerhall this Fringe I am confronted in the entrance lobby by a quotation from the Guardian theatre critic Lyn Gardner, proudly mounted on a display board amidst a sea of reviews. “You could spend the entire three weeks at Summerhall and never be bored for a second.” This quotation depresses me profoundly. I stop and gaze around at the clapped out corridors, the pointless artwork, and it seems very remote from the true gaiety of the Fringe. I begin to contemplate drawing up a legal contract with WordPress, stipulating that if I ever get to the stage at which I am writing things such as Gardner’s recommendation, they should immediately terminate my website.
Francis Bacon is surely too big an artist to appear at the Summerhall, like a seed bull confined on a miniature farm. In “Pope Head,” a one-man show in which Bacon is played by Garry Roost, the artist rejoices in the fact that people literally run away from his paintings. I think that if Bacon had ever come here, he would have run away from the Summerhall. Bacon was a poser, maybe he would have even been a hipster had he been around today, but he was living in an age when it was genuinely thrilling to don such a pose. There was still danger in the alternative. Homosexuals, in Bacon’s post-war Britain, were usually wretched, always hunted figures, who were always explaining themselves. Bacon was defiant, of course, but in this show he looks like he is consciously inhabiting the bogeyman pose. He quotes Nietzsche. He prances around in his homosexuality as if in a Halloween costume.
See Tychy passim for a lot of abuse towards one-man shows. “Pope Head” admittedly qualifies for some of this abuse. It involves a single performer doing the inevitable hop on the spot between different characters. It is mostly a fifty-minute impersonation of a pre-existing historical figure. Its success requires that it does not err from reproducing Bacon but, if it does not err, then a lot of the genius of the play (which is assembled out of lines from interviews with the artist) is attributable only to Bacon rather than to the performer’s creative artistry.
But sometimes the subject of a one-man show is so interesting that you simply have to endure all of the format’s horrendous weather. Roost might caper about too much to capture Bacon’s essence exactly – to me, the original subject sounds more languid and drawling – but there is an undeniable lyricism to this performance. This Bacon is husky, confiding, and scandalous. He is wriggling with all sorts of enjoyable details. The venue, one of the Summerhall’s virtually derelict dissecting theatres, features a loud one-second echo. Roost often exploits the atmosphere and the acoustics of this interior to striking effect. It is also brave to put Bacon on stage without any of his artwork, a clear case of bringing the mountain to Mahomet. With only three blank screens suggesting the numerous triptych panels, Roost has to evoke all of the meat, all of the sinews and slime, with his physicality alone.
Why, in particular, was I drawn to “Pope Head”? The precise reason is in fact this: years ago I came across a BBC documentary which detailed how Bacon had formed a relationship with a young man who he had found burgling his house. A talking head in this documentary had remarked about how tragic the relationship was. Bacon was a masochist but his poor lover was not a sadist. “Pope Head” recounts this and a great deal more of Bacon’s lurid, hilarious love life, but it also communicates the fervour of his modernist vision. Bacon was, like Picasso and Lucian Freud, a superman. I am not sure if there are many of them left these days.
There are only three of us in the audience, but the applause, when it comes, is huge and crashing. Okay, so this might be just the acoustics, but it nonetheless seems like gigantic applause for a genuine giant.