Bacon is a pleasure, indeed, it’s a gem.
A one man play a bout Francis Bacon (painter, not poet), performed by Pip Utton – who is also the co-author with Jeremy Towler – it has almost everything a theatrical biographical portrait should have. It is acting, not mimicry; it is creative yet factually accurate, and it offers insights into the sadly masochistic mind of one of the most complex artistic figures of the late 20th-Century. Bacon (and Utton looks remarkably like him facially) is directed by Geoff Bullen. He begins by telling his audience “I’m a work of art; I’m possibly the most artificial person there is”. It’s a sophisticated lop-sided remark that will soon find its context when we are further told: “I used to watch death at work every morning in the shaving mirror”.
The play goes on to offer us an “ordinary” portrait of an ordinarily mischievous human being or a mischievously ordinary one with a simple outlook on art. Art, he believes is ordinary in process; it is the trigger in the artist’s soul that makes it extraordinary. Stop talking and look he demands, deliberately turning his life into a sideshow to leave the work isolated for real contemplation.
The authorial thesis is that the violent sex that was part of Bacon’s reputation has nothing to do with the art other than to heighten the experience of being alive: it does not make the art itself violent. And ultimately his homosexuality was merely a “disability, more like a limp; and everybody wants you to limp in public”.
This is an hour of fascinating and thought-provoking theatre.
The British Theatre Guide
Pip Utton's performances are always - at least, those this reviewer has seen - masterclasses in acting, and Bacon is no exception. It takes as its subject that extravagant painter Francis Bacon who claimed that he was as much at home in the gutter as at the Ritz. Having to sit for just over an hour listening to one man talking directly to the audience as a dead painter might seem something of a penance but Utton makes it a thoroughly enjoyable experience, for he brings the man to life in all his complexity and - for want of a better word - weirdness.
How does he do it? It's a combination of things: like Rory Bremner, Utton has one of those malleable faces which can look very different with the smallest of changes (in this case, Bacon's hairstyle) and he is a master of body-language. It's not just a case of copying a few typical gestures but everything changes: he becomes the "concentration of camp", and we feel we are in the presence of Bacon himself.
This isn't a biographical piece: we do, it is true, hear about much of Bacon's life, in particular his sex life, but Utton explores Bacon's attitude to art and expounds his views on life. We come to know the man. Indeed, I went into the show knowing some of his paintings (and a few facts, such as Magraet Thatcher's dismissal of him as "that dreadful man who paints those horrible pictures") and came out feeling that I understood them and knew him. That's no mean achievement for an actor.
Frances Bacon even when he was alive was an enigma. Now several years after his death and the passage of time has begun to colour and shape the memory of this unique individual it must be even harder to get closer to the 'truth' what ever that maybe when it comes to knowing and understanding another human being. Pip Utton bravely attempts to do just this in his one man show to cast some light on this incredible artist. Utton in his representation finds a human being and describes a life so far from any social norm that I think I might begin to see how Bacon could have eventually come to produce work which is truly horrifying, his 'Screaming Pope' for instance is hideous and disturbing in its effect. The roots of genius and madness must surely spring from the same plot of ground and Utton's performance illustrates the thin separation of these two qualities.
The relationship that Bacon had with his father appears as a focal point in a significant amount of writing about Bacon as it seems to have been a major influence. Utton does reference it , though it might be argued not to the degree that many might say it warrants. The play focuses on Bacon's sexual dalliances just as much as it looks at Bacon's psychological motivations for painting, neither of these two elements are addressed badly; the former is not salaciously used nor the latter in a purile way.
Utton's performance closely reflects the conflicting qualities of Bacon and he moves through pathos, through the banal, though the visceral like a free running drop of mercury. There is an honesty and depth in Utton's portrayal that only comes from hard work, research and the finest attention to detail. This is a memorable performance.
This one-man show on the life of Francis Bacon can only be considered a companion piece to his portraits currently exhibiting in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art if you liken it to the painter's own relationships: generous and revealing, yet so callous and disdainful of any bond that pure, immediate feeling towards flesh and meat rather than any lingering luxury of empathy is demanded.
Indeed, Utton, who also reprises his acclaimed portrayal of Adolf Hitler at this year's festival, spends most of his play's final moments berating the audience for seeking to trawl the gutter of Bacon's life, as if existence itself were merely a series of distractions - drinking, gambling and rough sex - or worse, a Pollock or a Hockney, negating reality and the open corruption depicted by the Anglo-Irish artist.
It leaves the spectator feeling slightly assaulted, but, like the violent encounter on a clandestine common described by the painter, seems more real and alive than the bitchy biopic preceding it.
Utton plays Bacon as deceased yet recalling the death of his companions, in a limbo-like reverie where, initially at least, he entertains: an interview mooted for Lord Bragg by an unplugged telephone, tales of his Irish nanny or the Colony Club in Soho, its colourful characters brought to life by his wry, spiky waspishness.
But there is pathos throughout, not least in an early allusion to Bacon's lover, George Dyer, passed over just slowly enough for pain to flicker behind the famous forelock, and with Champagne as his incitement, the sense of a gathering storm is palpable.
Having forsaken the role of artificer, he can relate Dyer's suicidal tendencies and his own unabashed complicity in provoking them, but also revokes his own legend of their first meeting, when he supposedly caught the younger man burgling his house.
The recollection order is more or less linear, with tangents into indiscreetness and flashbacks to the artist's abusive father. But they are the self-pitying reminiscence of a drunk till Utton's increasingly abrasive finale attempts and succeeds in shifting focus on to the wounded, chaotic howl of Bacon's vision. Compelling and unsettling.
The Theatre Guide London
Painter Francis Bacon, known for his violently distorted bodies, characteristically refuses to explain himself in this solo show by Pip Utton, but Utton characteristically brings us fully into the man even as he is attempting to hide. As writer and performer, Utton's mode is to allow the painter to display the public masks he is comfortable behind and then let flashes of anger or other passions expose what's beneath. So his Bacon introduces himself in the guise of a bitchy queen in full Quentin Crisp mode, growing unexpectedly serious when talk shifts to his painting, which he speaks of as hand-to-hand combat with the subject, the medium and the viewer. That self-exposure made, and a considerable quantity of champagne quaffed, he is a little less guarded, and gradually the revelations about his sexual masochism and his need to capture the violence in the human form come together in a view of life as defined by its most intense and painful seconds. There's a lot of humour along the way, and perhaps some things to shock the most sheltered, but the power of the work, as with all Utton's self-written solo pieces, is in the solid reality he creates and the subtlety with which he brings us surprisingly deep into the character. Gerald Berkowitz
Pip Utton does it again. My main problem with this show was that I know so little of the life of Francis Bacon that I wasunable to judge the extent to which this was a recreation of his life and to what extent conjecture, but let’s ignore that.This is a masterpiece. Bravely set in the present time, after Bacon’s death in 1992, it tells of his life from his birth in Dublin. It focuses early on with his sex life and the men with whom he fucked. It moves on to tell his life story and of his painting. Much is made of the represen-
tation of an image on canvas and the equivalent photographic image, which Utton brilliantly illustrates by coming out of and going back into character. We learn of a sad old queen who thinks his life has been a disaster. A sad tale about a great painter. Oh, and I’m told, but have not yet seen, that the exhibition of
Bacon’s paintings currently on in Edinburgh is excellent.
The Daily Telegraph
The Choice *****
The master of the controversial one man show, Utton turns his attention to Francis Bacon. Absolutely unmissable.
Bacon is a one-man show about the life, loves and lows of tortured soul and artist Francis Bacon.
It's an intimate space, and Francis Bacon (Pip Utton) is sitting on a stool, preening himself. Next to him is a battered trolley littered with champagne corks, and a phone. It rings. He picks it up, and bellows 'Fuck Off!'
It's the start of a compelling, thought-provoking, unsettling journey. Pip Utton pilots a voyage through the gutters, sleazy bars, rough sex and alcohol of Bacon’s life.
It's embittered, outrageous and chaotic. There's his abusive relationship with his father. There's going to Berlin with his uncle - where he experiences the sexual freedom of the 1920s. And dying in Spain 'surrounded by fucking nuns' - a picture to conjure with.
There's an overall impression of loneliness, self-loathing, self-pity. There's seat-squirming berating of the audience. Abuse and violence are shown as normal in Bacon's life. The play highlights his pain and bitterness towards people he loved - who left him via death. There's his contempt for art critics with no idea of the meaning of his work.
There's humour - 'I'm dead, but I still masturbate', the conversation he has with Muriel Belcher, owner of Soho's Colony Club. There's wry wit - 'Homosexuality used to be fun, illegal - now it’s a disability, like a limp.'
Pip Utton is an extremely talented actor, full of passion and conviction. Like Bacon's art, the play shocks, transfixes - and surprises
Surely of all the plaudits lauded upon Francis Bacon none commend him as highly as Margaret Thatcher’s description of him as ‘that horrible man who paints those dreadful pictures’. From the culturally bankrupt Thatcher who was no lover of the arts- especially those of controversial or provocative nature- this was high praise indeed. What Pip Upton concentrates on in this one man show, however, is the man that many consider the greatest British painter since Turner and the incorporation of his daily life into his work.
With a mesmerising performance from Upton who opens manfully rouging his cheeks and glossing his lips then stating in a more characteristically effete manner that man is his own work of art continually requiring remaking and remodelling. He then goes onto enquire what today’s preference is going to be ‘ Whips, booze or buggery?’ although by this point the audience is already aware it will probably be all three.
Fuelled by champagne- uttering one of Oscar Wilde’s epigrams ‘champagne for my real friends and real pain for my sham friends’- Upton continues his descent into Bacon’s netherworld barely pausing to gather himself. Using the vernacular familiar to any habitué of the demimonde he describes, in succinct detail, a world populated by whores, drunks and –his own particular penchant- the bits of rough who seem to be a constant around older, rich gay men like himself. It is a world of depravity and skewed morals and Upton handles it in amazing fashion affording it the right amount of sparseness ultimately revealing the origins of his art which depicts this world in its macabre beauty. An extremely eloquent orator Upton articulates the frustration and desolation Bacon’s artistic status grants him but through more than words as he vocalizes much of his internal despair through facial expression and tics which indicate the rapid shifting of moods. Upton doesn’t merely play Bacon he inhabits him.
This was an amazingly accomplished performance and it will be interesting to see how Upton handles those other orchestrators of their own era’s in the 20th century, Charlie Chaplin, Adolf Hitler and Tony Hancock through the rest of this week, before returning to Bacon on Sunday 30th. One thing guaranteed is that the performances will never be anything less than spellbinding as Upton has a commanding presence taking us to the deepest well of Bacon’s despair without languishing in misery. A thoroughly faultless performance that captures the very essence of Bacon whilst handling it with sensitivity.