October 01, 1994

Frida Kitsch

Filed under: Archive,Interstate,Theatre


Viva la Vida
Frida Kahlo
Handspan Theatre
Space, September, 1994.

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Maybe it was all those calendars of Frida. Those querulous looks from heavy brows and hooded eyes. Each month, the iconography of pain and gore, flesh perforated with thorns and nails, a few small nips and Diego on my mind. The rediscovery of Frida Kahlo has charted a steep curve from obscurity to greeting cards. Her works have been seen in festivals and her biography has been widely read.

The Frida Kahlo phenomenon has something for everyone. This gifted Mexican painter of excruciating images was a free spirit trapped by physical mutilation, she was enmeshed in co-dependent relationship with another Great Artist, the muralist Diego Rivera. She became alcoholic, she flirted with Trotsky, even in death she sat up and stared as the flames engulfed her. This woman could sustain a cottage industry. Artist, radical, victim, nationalist- tick where applicable. Frida Kahlo is Carmen Miranda, Zelda Fitzgerald, Marianne Faithfull and Tammy Wynette all in one.

Except, of course, she is none of these. Which is why the Handspan Theatre rendition of her life and works is so enfuriatingly reductionist. The notion of a stage piece on Kahlo is enticing. Especially utilising the often extraordinary invention of such Handspan regulars as Ken Evans, Michelle Spooner and Peter Seaborn. But with Karen Corbett’s cumbersome text, Angela Chaplin’s ponderous direction and an often unwieldy use of images, Viva la Vida misses the mark.

Perhaps it is the scale of things. Kahlo produced vehement miniatures, intense in colour and almost necromantic in effect. The influence of Mexican religious art is translated into vengeful sacrilege, little nips into the mind and conscience. They tempt self-pity but their formal discipline, as in the best poems of Sylvia Plath, has a powerful capacity to connect and inform.
The lanky, menacing puppets of death and doom which open the narrative tower over Frida as do subsequent images from her paintings. This may be symbolically appropriate but it coarsens the meaning. Attempts to bring her paintings to life generally don’t succeed, particularly a nude image – The Broken Column – which is repeatedly framed. The fact that literal depictions and Frida’s own writings are used does not give Viva la Vida the authority intended, instead it tilts into a kind of earnest kitsch.

Writer Karen Corbett fastens on to the concept of Two Fridas- based on the painting showing one Frida, in white lace, connected by an external heart to her twin, dressed in free-fitting peasant clothing. Whenever Frida, played by Jane Bayly, is expostulating on art or politics or her tribulations with Diego, Carmelina di Guglielmo, as the doppelganger, is vigorously miming some hidden impulse or darker purpose. It is a mistaken trope, obscure if you don’t know the painting and tedious if you do.

No show from Handspan is without its moments of inspiration, however. The recreation of the Henry Ford Hospital painting is one, Frida’s reverie of childbirth is another. Depicting Diego as a gigantic pair of trousers provides a brilliant sight gag but it also palls in repetition because, like much of the show, it is an idea with nowhere to go.

The text, groaning with purple wisdom on art and love, has Frida playing every arch turn. First she is like a sort of Mexican Heidi, and then, in ludicrous portent of her terrible accident, we have the lines -“Here comes my trolley-bus now”. There are tender moments of Frida’s recovery- gracefully achieved by Bayly- but they are torpedoed by the giddiness of the text. The torments of Diego’s infidelity and Frida’s alcohol addiction are reduced to mariachi Mills and Boon or new age homilies on intuition and the ineffable nature of art.

As Frida goes into a decline so also does our patience. The heaping of visual images on top of the overly fruity text is all too much. Frida, like the show, is dying in front of us- reeling off every last banality, even poor Kahlo lurching upright in mid-cremation, surrounded by the sound of exploding crackers. Maybe she was trying to tell us something, one last platitude left unturned. Maybe she was sitting up to say – Go back to my paintings, they are what matter, not my wretched soap opera life, not my sanctimonious, unformed writings. Not this misguided attempt to look for me where I’ll never be found.

“Frida Kitsch” The Adelaide Review, No.132, October, 1994, p.33.

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