Given how famous the Mona Lisa is, it’s perhaps surprising that more people don’t know the story of its theft in 1911. And that’s a shame, because it’s a great story: Italian workman Vincenzo Peruggia (Tice Oakfield), troubled that Da Vinci’s painting resided in France and not in its creator’s homeland, took it from the Louvre with the intention of returning it to Italy. After keeping the painting in his apartment for over two years, he was finally caught when he contacted an Italian gallery owner and revealed the Mona Lisa‘s whereabouts. Peruggia spent a year in prison for the theft, but became a national hero as the painting toured Italy before being returned to the Louvre in 1913.
Victor Lodato’s 2011 play explores Peruggia’s motivations (to this day, it’s unclear if he was driven purely by patriotism or by a desire for financial reward) and his complex relationship with the Mona Lisa during the years he kept the painting in his home. Tice Oakfield’s Peruggia is instantly engaging as he addresses us directly; this is no practised criminal but a man driven by passion to do something even he can’t quite believe he’s actually capable of. And then having done it, he finds himself trapped and driven to the brink of madness – unable to give up the painting, but equally unable to live under the Mona Lisa’s calm, enigmatic gaze. Whether she’s on display or hidden away in a trunk, it’s clear that he constantly feels her presence and is fascinated and terrified in equal measure.
Peruggia’s response to the painting allows Lodato to expand his focus and allow other voices to offer their own perspectives on Da Vinci’s work. In all, there are ten characters in the play, and each of them is portrayed in Kate Bannister’s production by Tice Oakfield, who transforms before our eyes from Vincenzo Peruggia to artist Marcel Duchamps, to British critic Walter Pater, to a harried school teacher trying to get her kids to engage with art. By exploring these different viewpoints, Lodato invites the audience – at one point quite literally – to consider for ourselves this picture we’ve seen hundreds of times, and to ask anew just what it is about La Gioconda that provokes such passionate reactions in people from all walks of life.
Over the years we’ve come to expect good things from the in-house creative team at the Jack, and this latest offering is no exception. Peruggia’s humble origins are reflected in Karl Swinyard’s intimate attic apartment set, while video projections from Douglas Baker and sound design from Julian Starr enhance the narrative without distracting from Oakfield’s enthralling central performance. The result is an unassuming production that’s nevertheless quietly powerful – much like the painting that inspired it.
The Woman Who Amuses Herself continues at the Jack Studio Theatre until 23rd July.