The Artist’s Muse [by James Wenley]
For artists Einar and Gerda Wegener, 1920s bohemian Paris represents “exciting times”. War is over, cinema is changing the world, and in these enlightened times there is the sense that you can be whoever you want.
Gerda (Alex Ellis), the portrait artist, is the “modern woman in trousers”, rejecting her gender’s traditional role; Einar (Simon Coleman), the landscape artist, finds expression in dressing in woman’s clothes as an alter-ego called Lili. Lili began life as a model for Gerda, but takes a life of her own as Lili began to appear publically and cause a sensation in the society. Lili realises that this is her “true self” and seeks surgery to change her gender.
Writer and co-director Phil Ormsby has taken inspiration from this real life story for his follow-up to Drowning in Veronica Lake – the world’s first sex change operation – to create a fascinating two-hander on love, art, and identity. Gerda and Einar are a supremely witty pair, straight out of the Noel Coward playbook. His droll dialogue contains many great lines on the “art to living life”.
Alex Ellis’ and Simon Coleman’s chemistry is one of the productions great appeals, flashbacks showing the couple in more idealistic and playful times, chasing each other around their loft, before Einar’s pursuit of Lili causes a rift between them.
Simon Coleman is a well-known theatre practitioner off-stage, but this was the first time I had seen him in front of the audience; in A Model Woman he does heavy lifting as actor, co-director and set designer. Scene mechanics (requiring Ellis and Coleman to be onstage for the duration of the play) means that that there is no time for a full transformation from Einar to the beguiling Lili, Coleman teases our imaginations with the addition of a scarf and a shift in body and tone. He finds an intriguing interplay between repression and release in the two identities. There is a tendency to get stuck in the same pattern of delivery, and he hasn’t yet achieved the necessary level of on-stage ease. Ellis is a captivating presence as Gerda, and makes the character just as provocative as her husband.
Orsmby’s narrative structure uses short scenes that move from the present to the past; this means that it is often hard to give yourself over to the story – you are soon whisked away to another time – and it can be difficult to keep track of chronology. The rapid transitions both physically and aurally are jarring, pushing us away rather than pulling us in. I acknowledge the possible influence of the theories of a certain dramatist gaining vogue in Europe during this era, but as the performances, particularly Ellis’s, are inviting emotionality, I wonder if this is the intended effect.
Nik Janiurek’s lighting works wonders in shifting the mood, working particularly well with Coleman’s slanted screens on either side of the space to create different colour textures. The direction makes full use of the possibilities of the productions traverse seating, and gives ample play to both sides of the audience.
I’m excited by the singing that opens the show and so brilliantly captures the flavour of the contemporary Bohemian society, and the exaggerated poses that Coleman and Ellis strike. The later moments of direct address get stuck in the same austere mode of delivery, and I wonder about the possibilities of extending this earlier mode further.
With this story of Gerda, Einar, and Lili, Flaxworks have found a winner, though tweaks are needed in execution to aid the experience. A fascinating personal history that feels very modern indeed.
A Model Woman is presented by Flaxworks Theatre Company and plays at The Basement until 2 November . Details see The Basement.