• At home

    Though I mention it too late, in all likelihood, for those not already booked to take advantage of its remaining performances, the brilliance of the site-specific theatrical event staged at Leighton House yesterday evening to mark the return home of Flaming June deserves a special post. Delving into the complex web of known relationships Frederic Leighton had whilst speculating intelligently on their unknown aspects, The Muse – written by Katherine Tozer and directed by Nick Barber, both of Palimpsest – yielded an absorbing, intimate, atmospheric and ultimately emotional night of live drama in extraordinary surroundings.

    It is about 1880, and we are about to eavesdrop on an evening at Leighton’s home. It is part of the insular world of the Holland Park Circle, as the tight group of painter-neighbours became known, with its bespoke studio-houses commissioned from the best architects of the day and frequent exchanges of ideas, pictures and visits. With the audience sitting around two sides of the studio where Leighton created his works, events unfold more or less in real time.

    Quiet yet focused, neighbour Mrs Emilie Barrington (Tozer) appears, dressed in mourning still for her infant son and smarting at rejection of a different kind after the Royal Academy sent back her own paintings (“I burn all my failures”). Installed as a kind of informal housekeeper, she helps Leighton (Andrew Wincott) despite his sometimes off-handed responses and, it becomes clear, has her own feelings for him.

    Dorothy Dene (Tegen Hitchens) – aged about twenty, tumbling red curls, vivacious – arrives in a fuss, late from a performance in the West End and eager to tell Leighton everything. He, though, is eager for her to change so that he can arrange her in the pose of Andromache, the widow of Hector from Greek mythology, for his new painting (which now hangs in Manchester Art Gallery). Later they are joined by French singer Pauline Viardot Garcia (Nina Lainville), here to help Dorothy prepare for her next big role as tragic prophet Cassandra, and Leighton’s good friend Giovanni Costa (Marco Gambino), whom he met in Italy decades ago.

    The interplay of ideas, beliefs and urges that emerges over the next hour or so reveals deep and complex motivations, centring on the Pygmalion-like transformation of working-class Ada Pullen into alliteratively-renamed actress Dorothy. Importantly the moral rightness of this and the cost to all involved is explored, through some sharp, sometimes bitter, exchanges. “I’ll be over the moon with a Browning quote,” enthuses Dorothy as she beseeches Leighton to sing her praises in a letter to the writer; “One month posing, the next floating pregnant in the Regent’s Canal,” warns Costa, after forcing Ada to restage a speech in her true voice. “You can speak in your new voice and move at the same time,” advises Pauline, shrewdly.

    That the real Ada was left without parents at an early age and forced to support her siblings allows us to see Leighton as a source of income and a father figure to her, though at least one other reading of their bond is obvious. “Unclasp me!” she calls from behind the screen provided for models to change; posing nude thereafter whilst talking nineteen to the dozen, her attractiveness to the unmarried Leighton needs little imagining. “I should like to be a siren,” muses Dorothy of a potential future part, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she already is. “It’s quite easy to pretend to be married; we both enjoy that,” confesses Leighton, later. “Until bedtime,” snaps Costa.

    In fact it gradually becomes apparent that often-conflicting feelings are born by more than one participant in this drama, with Costa concealing jealously over an apparent cooling of his friendship with Leighton, an allusion to sublimated desires of another kind toward the Italian on the part of the great painter himself and those similarly-concealed yearnings of Mrs Barrington, beautifully expressed in her wistful observation that she can see “Sir Fred’s studio from her window…if I keep the trees trimmed.”

    Indeed, Tozer is able here to construct not so much a love triangle as a love pyramid, with Leighton at its tip, such is the void of information about his private life. The result is rich and involving and – importantly – never disrespectful or flip.

    The pressures of fame, the need for but price of publicity and what we would now call the marketing of celebrity are also discussed – there were, it seems, both cigarette cards of Dene and a dress-up children’s doll – and once again Costa’s words bite: “Is she listed as ‘tragic muse’ on the payroll?”, he wonders acidly.

    After a heated argument between Costa and Leighton the play climaxes more peacefully with a neat moment that provides one possible answer to the question of how Flaming June came to be. In reflecting on his own flaws, Leighton describes himself as being two men, the one open and generous, the other “observant, unmoved, odious”. Tozer allows Dorothy the final line, yet in a manner that acknowledges Ada.

    This was a superb production. Tozer’s text is layered, nuanced and tight, referencing a number of incidents in Leighton’s life and crafting realistic personalities for the others. Her own performance showed great stillness but with a core of determination; Gambino switched effortlessly and convincingly from suave aesthete to passionate fighter. Holding centre stage for much of the time, often literally, Hitchens essayed the triple personas of Ada, Dorothy and Cassandra seamlessly, mixing childlike enthusiasm, wit and self-reflection.

    Twenty years ago a very different but conceptually related piece entitled Relentless Perfection: An evening with Frederic Leighton was staged at the house as part of the centenary celebrations. This audience was led through a house that had been dressed, draped and lit as carefully and luminously as one of Leighton’s paintings, observing a series of vignettes including a visit from an eager young artist in the dining room and stories from the explorer Richard Burton, Leighton’s friend, in the famous Arab Hall. It, too, ended with a live staging of the artist’s most famous picture. Importantly, however, Leighton himself never appeared, manifesting only as a voice. Given the intervening period has seen the restoration both of Leighton’s reputation and of the house itself, it seems appropriate that Leighton should be fully visible in this new production. Perhaps, with lost works resurfacing at Melbury Road, new scholarship and productive research too, another two decades will see the truth of what Tozer and Barber propose finally surface in a third such engagement with the past.

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

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