Review: Woman Before a Glass at Jermyn Street Theatre

Lanie Robertson’s Woman Before A Glass is an apt choice to kick off the Scandal Season at Jermyn Street Theatre. Starring Judy Rosenblatt in an impressive solo performance, the play explores the eventful life and times of Peggy Guggenheim, the loyal patron of contemporary art, whose collection – which includes the likes of Picasso, Kandinsky and Pollock – can still be visited to this day at the palazzo in Venice in which she lived, and where the play is set.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

We join Peggy in the 1960s as she’s trying to find a gallery to whom she can leave her collection of works – her “children” as she calls them – and reflecting on a life of sorrow, scandal and lots of sex. A frantic search for something to wear for a TV interview rapidly turns into one long name drop, which is perhaps not surprising from the woman who married Max Ernst, had an affair with Samuel Beckett, and was an early champion of Jackson Pollock. She tells us about her sexual conquests – including the married ones – without shame or embarrassment, and remembers wistfully the one man she really loved, British literary critic John Ferrar Holms. Her grief over his sudden death decades earlier still feels fresh and raw, and gives us an early glimpse behind the brash socialite facade.

As the play goes on, this veneer cracks more and more often, with Peggy recalling the death of her adored father on the Titanic, and later the loss of her sister in childbirth. We see too her hopes and fears for her daughter Pegeen, a troubled artist who – for better or worse – carries the full weight of her mother’s expectation on her shoulders (her brother Sindbad having been written off long ago). The unspoken rivalry between Peggy’s relationship with her so-called “children” – her art – and her actual offspring lies at the heart of the play; her courageous and unwavering loyalty to her work is admirable, but may well come at a personal cost.

Judy Rosenblatt reprises her role in Tom McClane-Williamson’s revival of the New York production directed by Austin Pendleton. In a dynamic and multi-faceted performance, she gives us an insight into the complexity of this remarkable historical figure, holding nothing back whether in moments of triumph or despair. “Il mio palazzo è il tuo palazzo,” she says more than once, gesturing around at Erika Rodriguez’s stylish, minimalist set – and it really does feel that way, such is the intimate, confiding nature of Rosenblatt’s delivery.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

Of course, not all Peggy’s revelations paint her in a good light – like her fondness for other people’s husbands, the way she dismisses her son and smothers her daughter, and her unwillingness to give the maid a day off to visit a new grandchild – but there’s no denying hers is a fascinating story that makes for an absorbing 90 minutes. And while we may not like everything we see, as Peggy herself showed us, that doesn’t make it any less worth seeing.

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