Monday, 11 January 2016

David Bowie - Lazarus, Baal and The Elephant Man

It came as no real surprise when it was announced that David Bowie would be co-writing a play set to open in New York. Here, after all, was a pop star – an artist – whose entire career had been one of theatrical reinvention, as he took on a different guise for each new record that looked increasingly tailor-made for the video age.

When it was announced that, rather than go down the crowd-pleasing jukebox musical route a la Abba's Mamma Mia! or Queen's We Will Rock You, this new work called Lazarus would see Bowie collaborating with playwright Enda Walsh and director Ivo van Hove, it sounded a tantalisingly serious proposition.

Both Walsh and Van Hove are Edinburgh stalwarts, with Walsh having carved out an international career from his Fringe debut, Disco Pigs, in 1997, to writing the libretto for opera The Last Hotel, which appeared at last year's Edinburgh International Festival. Van Hove's production of Antigone, starring Juliette Binoche, appeared in the same programme.

Such left-field choices were typical of Bowie's chameleon-like nature, which encapsulated the very essence of post-modern pop culture, and for whom the word art-rock could have been created.

Lazarus was inspired by The Man Who Fell To Earth, the novel by Walter Tevis filmed by Nicolas Roeg with Bowie playing the title role of Thomas Newton, an alien lost in an American wilderness. Rather than do a simple remake, as with Bowie's ever-shifting oeuvre, this new work was an audacious sequel focusing on Newton, played here by Dexter and Six Feet Under star, Michael C Hall.

Talking on these pages about Lazarus in the run up to the opening of The Last Hotel, Walsh described the collaboration with Bowie as “incredibly easy. He'd seen a couple of plays of mine, and we got on.”

Today, all Walsh could say was that he was “devastated.”

Bowie's relationship with theatre was inconstant but always striking. He had played The Elephant Man on Broadway, and the title role in a TV version of Bertolt Brecht's Baal. He had studied mime under Lindsay Kemp, and channelled the theatrics of Anthony Newley into the social-realist music hall narratives of his 1960s work, before taking the leap into the science-fiction dystopia of The Man Who Fell To Earth and everything that came after.

While Lazarus sounds perfect for Edinburgh under the polymathic regime of artistic director Fergus Linehan, an Edinburgh run has never been discussed. The power of Bowie was made plain, however, in 2009, when Michael Clark and company danced to Heroes at Edinburgh Playhouse. As the video of the Berlin era version of the thin white duke beamed out in all its back-lit simplicity, rather than focus on the dancers, all eyes were on the screen.

Of Lazarus, Rolling Stone described it as 'a two-hour meditation on grief and lost hope (with no intermission), but it takes so many wild, fantastical turns that it never drags.' For the generations who first discovered pop and art and the dramatic power of both when melded together, the second half of that sentence might easily be referring to the always knowing, forever restless spirit of Bowie himself. In his final album, Blackstar, released last week alongside the single, Lazarus, to coincide with his sixty-ninth birthday (and even here the upside-down symmetry seems perfect), Bowie even wrote his own epitaph. Where are we now, indeed?

The Herald, January 11th 2015

ends

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