Currently world premièring at the Ustinov Studio, the smaller sister to Theatre Royal Bath, you don’t have to be an art buff in order to appreciate Looking at Lucian. Written by Alan Franks, directed by Tom Attenborough and starring Henry Goodman as artist Lucian Freud, the entire one man play is set in his Kensington studio, with Goodman excelling as the character with more stories than the Arabian Nights.
A fascinating and often hilarious study of the eccentric portraitist and womaniser, rumoured to have fathered anywhere between 14 and 40 children, Lucian was the grandson of psychiatrist Sigmund Freud and the son of architect Ernst with whom he fled Berlin for London in 1933, aged ten, upon the rise of Nazism. After a privileged education Lucian went on to become a notorious figure among the London social scene; his connections and myriad famous subjects attracting the attention of both the art world and international press.
Utterly engaging throughout, it’s impossible not to lap up the never-ending anecdotes of Lucian’s life and career, including his experience of painting HM The Queen (with clothes on) or Kate Moss (without). Despite his 1995 portrait entitled Benefit Supervisor Sleeping being of an anonymous woman nude, it reached a record £17.25 million when sold to Roman Abramovich in 2008, confirming that Lucian’s work was easily capable of transcending the modern obsession for celebrity. In 2015 the work was re-sold at Christie’s New York for a staggering $56.2 million.
Goodman is captivating whether relating encounters with Greta Garbo in Soho, the Jaggers and the Kray brothers, or the sad history of many of his Jewish relatives who perished in the holocaust. Looking boldly at the audience with frankness and an appealing charm, it’s a performance that does full justice to a beautifully written and devised play that certainly deserves a place in the West End.
Addressing the audience as though we are the nude female sitter, Goodman achieves an immediate intimacy, nor should it be underestimated how difficult this technique is to pull off, at least with so much naturalness. He speaks with a public school accent with rolled ‘r’s, while his gestures and expressions, such as his fixed beady eyes when studying his invisible muse, enhance our intrigue. His erratic use of the easel, paintbrush and lead paint captures the bohemian atmosphere of the work space Lucian was happy to devote himself to seven days a week and often long into the night, evocatively re-imagined by designer Carla Goodman. He once said, “It is the only point of getting up every morning: to paint, to make something good, to make something even better than before, not to give up, to compete, to be ambitious.”
Franks, aside from being a features writer for The Times for 30 years, a novelist, poet and musician, clearly has a unique talent for condensing an immense life into an exquisite two hours of drama. Looking at Lucian is a sensitive portrait of the often misunderstood artist, exploring his many passions in life, from wine to women, but none greater than his dedication to his work and the ability to unite his soul and the sitter’s upon the canvas. Filled with light and shade, poignancy and humour, Goodman makes Lucian a surprisingly likeable character in this powerful tribute to one of the most important artists of a generation. Unmissable.
Looking at Lucian at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath, Saw Cl, Bath BA1 1ET, until 2 September 2017. For more information and tickets please visit the website. Production images by Nobby Clark.