Frida Kahlo was a wild, tempestuous, brilliant woman whose art is truly mindblowing. Whilst I wouldn't apply quite such strong adjectives to Frida Kahlo, Viva La Vida, Gaël Le Cornec's performance of Humberto Robles' play, which is based on fragments from the artist's biography, letters, extracts from her diary and interviews, captures enough of this explosive personality to make a gripping evening of theatre.
Le Cornec takes her character through the Day of the Dead, conjuring from scraps of cloth, papier-mâché skulls, and beloved objects characters from her past, above all her husband Diego Rivera — their dysfunctional relationship portrayed here with painful clarity — but also Breton, Trotsky and Rockefeller. Also stunningly portrayed are her love-hate relationships with Paris and New York, and her powerful drug addictions.
Le Cornac throws herself into the part. One second of self-doubt and this would dissolve into histrionics, but there isn't one, whether she's conducting an angry one-woman food fight with the soul of her dreadfully faithless dead husband, or cradling one of her unborn babes made from the fold of a scarf. She is a woman at war with her body, as her body is at war with her: scarred by horrific accident, wracked by drug addiction, struggling to hold herself together with the help of a torturing brace.
The language, as you'd expect from Kahlo's own words, is sweeping, soaring, challenging: "I'd rather sell tortillas in the street market than hang around with [Parisians]." "Art is like beauty, it just feeds your soul, that's all." "My body and I are slowly killing each other."
Criticisms? Well I found the lighting rather clunky and jerky (although perhaps in part that's a venue limitation rather than a fault of direction), and was less than thrilled with the dry ice at the end. (Why do directors always feel the more dry ice the better?)
But those small quibbles aside, this is a riveting 75 minutes of theatre, and some of the best value you're likely to get for a 12 pound ticket in London right now.
And a final note: if you're the sort of audience member who really, really hates audience participation, and you're male, you might want to sit right up the back…
The production continues until November 7 at the Oval House theatre.