Home / Drama / Bakersfield Mist – Duchess Theatre, London

Bakersfield Mist – Duchess Theatre, London

Writer: Stephen Sachs

Director: Polly Teale

Reviewer: Jon Wainwright

Trailer park tat fills the stage and spills into the stalls. There’s stuff everywhere: plates, pictures, knick knacks on the inside, and outside dead vines entangle a telephone pole and spread across the trailer’s roof. This corner of Bakersfield is a world away from metropolitan minimalism and the sophistication of the East Coast art elite. Tom Piper’s magnificent set is like a three-dimensional splatter painting, and it also invites an instant judgement about the kind of person who lives like this. Such rapid cognition – how our minds can view a complex subject and generate a single thought – is one of the themes of this play, and is even evoked by the opening action: the lights go down, the myriad details disappear, and in wanders the red tip of a lit cigarette.

The smoker is Maude, an ex-barmaid, who’s called in Lionel, former head of MOMA, to authenticate her three-dollar thrift-store painting as a genuine Jackson Pollock. Between puffs, Maude downs a slug of whisky and then completes the holy trinity of trash by bellowing a string of husky expletives at the neighbour’s dog (Kathleen Turner takes to this rôle like a duck to water). Poor Lionel staggers in, his usual social graces ill-suited to such hospitality. He soon recovers his composure, and Ian McDiarmid ensures his character exudes the perfect amount of patrician impatience and wry condescension, all the while displaying impeccable manners.

Lionel gets down to business, and examines the painting. The trouble with cognition, expert or otherwise, is that a thought process doesn’t make good drama. McDiarmid comes to his character’s rescue by creating a wonderfully performative rigmarôle that ends with Lionel getting up close to the canvas and sniffing the air around it, as though he might catch a whiff of Pollock’s underarm odour. He doesn’t, and Maude is naturally disappointed by his negative conclusion.

Although Lionel gives some general reasons why the painting is not genuine (“Pollock’s work always teetered on a catastrophe”) he doesn’t say anything specific about whythisparticular painting is a fake. This allows the painting to remain unseen, and for a fascinating reversal to take place. Usually, it’s ordinary folk who trust their intuitions, and experts who are supposed to trade in scientific proof. In this story, however, it’s Lionel who sticks to his gut feeling while Maude produces the results of various physical tests she’s had carried out on the painting (including fingerprint analysis) in order to “prove” it’s real.

It’s not clear that the playwright understands this rôle reversal, since in an interview in the programme Stephen Sachs suggests that the “appeal of Maude is that she is an everyman who is up against the Goliath of the establishment.” In fact, it’s Maude who tries to use the weight of “the establishment” to crush the singular intuitive judgement of a man who has spent a lifetime in love with Pollock’s art. It’s Lionel who gives an impassioned account of this love affair (and McDiarmid who virtually re-creates Pollock’s working methods, ending up marvellously dishevelled on the floor).

Maude, in contrast, admits the painting is ugly and simply wants Lionel’s stamp of approval. She wants him to see her painting “as real” – but what’s her motivation? Why does she need him to validate the painting? Are her protestations that it’s not about the money genuine? Audience members will come to their own conclusions, but the speed with which she signs on the dotted line suggests that she’s not entirely uninfluenced by thoughts of a jackpot.

Photo: Tristram Kenton | Runs until 30th August

Writer: Stephen Sachs Director: Polly Teale Reviewer: Jon Wainwright Trailer park tat fills the stage and spills into the stalls. There's stuff everywhere: plates, pictures, knick knacks on the inside, and outside dead vines entangle a telephone pole and spread across the trailer's roof. This corner of Bakersfield is a world away from metropolitan minimalism and the sophistication of the East Coast art elite. Tom Piper's magnificent set is like a three-dimensional splatter painting, and it also invites an instant judgement about the kind of person who lives like this. Such rapid cognition – how our minds can view a…

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A fascinating reversal

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