MRS PICASSO by STET at Branoul Theatre, The Hague

Geniuses, eh, what can you do with them? Their extraordinary talents and visions are lauded and we are then surprised and dismayed when they behave differently, and often outrageously, from everybody else, spitting in the face of society’s norms. It’s almost as though they are expected to be geniuses from nine to five and come home, put on their slippers and cardigan and read the paper. But it’s not like that, being a genius is a 24/7 occupation and those in their path had better beware.

Pablo Picasso, arguably the greatest artist of the twentieth century, was a famous philanderer with a string of mistresses and muses right up until his death in 1973 at the age of ninety-two. In her play Mrs Picasso, Carlijn van Ramshorst presents and reveals two of them, Françoise Gilot, whose book Life With Picasso provides one of the seminal insights into the artist’s life and persona, and Olga Stepanovna Khokhlova, the first Mrs Picasso who remained his wife until her death in 1955.

But Ms van Ramshorst’s play is more than a simple two-part story. She introduces the piece as herself, inviting the audience to explore the concept of perception. She steps on and off the stage, perceived as one thing on it, another when off. At one point she gets up close and personal to a male member of the audience, wearing skimpy black lace underwear (she, not him) exploring the relationship between actor and audience, artist and model.

In the first part of the play we meet Olga, permanently hovering on the verge of a nervous breakdown, unable to cope with the philandering genius to whom she has been married since 1918. Having once been a celebrated and courted-by-the-famous dancer she finds herself trapped by Picasso who, fearing the cost of a settlement, refuses to divorce her. Needless to say, a lot of hand-wringing self-pity ensues while a projected Picasso portrait of herself slowly disintegrates on the screen behind until only the crying eyes are left. Ms van Ramshorst succeeded in bringing out the pathos and helplessness of this embittered and helpless woman.

After a brief interlude as herself again, Carlijn proceeded with an onstage change of clothes, including the sexy underwear episode, before introducing us to one of the other significant women in the great artist’s life.

Françoise Gilot, an artist in her own right, was an altogether different kettle of fish. Although constantly professing and confirming her love for Picasso, she refused to be dominated by him, finally walking out on their ten year relationship in 1953. She is still alive, living in New York and is still, as recently as 2015, exhibiting. In complete contrast to Olga, Ms van Ramshorst manages to portray the confidence and poise that Françoise Gilot refused to have taken from her by a man whose almost raison d’être was to dominate women.

Considerable praise must go to Carlijn van Ramshorst not only for her excellent portrayal of two completely different women but for conceiving and bringing to the stage this moving, entertaining and enlightening piece of theatre.  Michael Hasted   25th May 2018