McQueen is a new play by James Phillips about ‘The fashion visionary who broke the rules.’ The play takes us on a journey into the somber fairytale world of Alexander McQueen’s imagination.
When you first walk into the theatre, it’s like seeing a ghost. Stephen Wight, who plays McQueen, paces the stage as the perfect doppelganger. Kitted out in his recognisable jeans, boots, and simple jumper, McQueen turns back and forth through a dim shaft of light on an otherwise aphotic stage, wrapping his belt tightly around his wrist. This was the beginning of a very dark play.
The play is set just before McQueen’s ‘Plato’s Atlantis’ collection. His mother is desperately ill with cancer, Isabella Blow has committed suicide, and the pressure is on to create his next big collection.
McQueen is in his studio, a cramped space dotted with mannequins. An intruder breaks in to steal a dress. Her name is Dahlia (played brilliantly by Carly Bawden). He chats to her while on the phone to his friend, and milliner, Philip Tracey. After convincing McQueen not to call the police on her intrusion, they decide to spend the night on the town together. McQueen needs inspiration for a new collection, and decides that a dalliance with Dahlia might be his only option.
And so they begin their phantasmagorical night on the town. We see this odd couple travel to a barrage of significant locations from McQueen’s past. There is no true linearity to the journey. Some scenes are dream like and others a stark reality, maybe an echo of McQueen’s fragmented and tortured mind.
One of the dream-like scenes takes us to Isabella Blow (Tracy-Ann Oberman), the ‘sartorial truffle hunter’ who enters the stage dramatically on a chaise longue. Isabella was the catalyst for McQueen’s success, instantly falling in love with his collection at his Graduate show, and helping him rise to fame. When McQueen took a highly paid job at Givenchy, he ‘left Isalbella behind’. The play speculates that McQueen didn’t take Isalbella on as his consultant because she ‘wasn’t what he needed at the time’.
The next scene takes us to another of the many controversial topics provoked by McQueen: Misogyny. We see McQueen coolly address the rapid-fire questions of fashion journalist, Arabella, about his collection, ‘Highland rape’. She questions why there was blood down the legs of the models if the statement of the collection was about the containment of Scotland after the Jacobite risings in 1745. McQueen isn’t convinced by her arguments.
We also get a glimpse of McQueen’s relationship with his mother. A woman he loves so much, ‘it’s like rage.’ In his mother’s house, he presents Dahlia with a golden feathered coat that his mother liked, an echo of the coat in his final collection, where his angelic pieces nodded a quiet tribute to his mother’s passing.
As we see McQueen battle with these scenarios, we’re entertained with small but significant interjections of happiness. In one moment we see McQueen and Dahlia spot a falcon on the roof where they are bird watching. A moment that he states is ‘real beauty’. Another is when he ‘figures out’ Dahlia’s personality out and creates a dress just for her.
McQueen himself may not have been impressed with the quality of the dress, or indeed the costumes in general. They lacked the precise cut, elegance and bold aesthetic of the McQueen brand. And with a fashion audience in mind, they should have been outrageously fabulous.
Costumes aside, the play did hone in on one true fact – ‘we think we know McQueen because we read about him, but we don’t know the real him’. Should he have taken Isabella on because he owed her a debt of gratitude or was keeping her away the best thing for his sanity? Would he have risen to the heights of his fame without creating controversial work like Highland Rape? Was he a misogynist? The only answers we truly have are mere speculations, and there are statements in this play that presume too much.
For those of you familiar with Alexander McQueen’s life and work, you may feel like it’s too soon for a play. And in which case, you might find this a very emotional performance. For those of you not so familiar, it’s unavoidable to leave the theatre without bringing a little of the darkness with you.
McQueen runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 7th November 2015. For more information and to book tickets, visit www.trh.co.uk.