Theatre – Frida Kahlo: Viva La Vida
Venue: Old 505 Theatre, Newtown
Written By: Humberto Robles
Directed By: Anna Jahjah
Yet again the invaluable Théâtre Excentrique under the direction of Anna Jahjah has chosen to present a play both topical and spellbinding. Viva la Vida by Mexico’s award winning playwright Humberto Robles looks at the woman behind the iconised image of artist, Frida Kahlo, patron saint of the rejected and wounded.
The play begins with a back projection showing the frenzy of mourners at Kahlo’s funeral making the important point that while in her lifetime she was known more for being the wife of an artist, her death initiated a rise to almost unprecedented adulation. Nowadays her story, polio at six that left her with a withered leg, and an almost fatal accident at 18 that fractured both her spine and pelvis in several places and impaled her lower body, is probably familiar to most, as is her tumultuous and anguished relationship with Diego Rivera.
We are accustomed to see photographs of Kahlo in Mexican national dress, head poised confidently and proudly, eyes boldly challenging onlookers. We are familiar with at least one of her paintings – probably “The Broken Column” or “Thorn Necklace with Humming Bird” – which display her personal physical and mental suffering but are nevertheless brilliantly coloured, bold and confronting. But the Kahlo (a movingly frenetic and despairing Kate Bookallil) we meet as she climbs from her bed, a frail figure in a white chemise and slip, is depleted of that hallmark vitality.
It is the Day of the Dead, an important festival in Mexico when family and friends gather to celebrate the lives of the deceased, and Kahlo pleads with her “paw” to give her some reprieve from pain so that she can prepare for the festivities. The pain – its intensity conveyed by an almost intolerably high-pitched squeaking – controls the quality of her life, and while between spasms she can be brash, she crumples at its onset. We appreciate then that to fulfill her role as celebrant demands a steely resolve for which the iron brace, later revealed beneath her chemise, is an agonising metaphor.
The rituals of the festival are the means through which Kahlo gives us insight into her chaotic and anguished emotions. One of the most powerful symbols of the festival celebrations is the figure of La Catrina, the Lady of the Dead, who sits comfortably in Kahlo’s wheelchair. This insouciant skeleton can be teased, taken to bed and wearing a feathered hat become a partner in a frenzied and disturbing dance. While she has survived death, these moments suggest, it is only to have Catrina as her constant companion.
Kahlo assembles her own curious collection of memorabilia of the “dead”, those she has known, lost, despised, rejected and loved. As she inscribes offensive messages on her clutch of little skulls, another of the festive rituals, she expresses her contempt for the French male art establishment, apparently eager to subsume her work into their own avant-garde movement and American magnate who believed he could buy her integrity.
We see her desperation in her drawings of still embryonic little Diego, and the agony (and ecstasy) of her relationship with the pudgy Rivera. As she fixes them to the wall it is apparent that she both obsessively mourns her incapacity to bear a child and the inability of Rivera to be the husband she needed. Life has betrayed her, as Diego betrayed her, to her utter humiliation, with her sister. The ‘Viva La Vida’ of the title takes on a heavily ironic aspect.
Kahlo’s at times wistful or bitter or volatile survey of her past seems not to warrant that strangely glittering triumph in the eyes of her famous self-representations. However, as she progressively conceals her frail pale figure beneath a colourful folkloric costume she increases in strength. Decisively she pulls on her red boots and places a crown of flowers upon her head, and flinging out her arm she is at last ready. But is it for life? Or resignation to approaching death? Whatever our response, Bookallil’s final tableau helps us understand that Frida Kahlo was her own creation.
Sharp, witty, savage, vulnerable and passionate by turns, Bookallil is an intense but private Kahlo, and the performance as a whole is a spellbinder. Jahjah has a winning production in Viva la Vida, and she is showing an increasing ability to discern what is appealing to the theatre-going audience looking for an experience outside mainstream theatre.
Viva la Vida was adapted from Spanish by Gael Le Cornec and Luis Benkhard.