Pope Head (The Secret Life of Francis Bacon)

Garry Roost is both writer and performer in this broad, jumbled examination of the life of the troubled artist, Francis Bacon. At times as unnerving and surreal as the artist's most famous works, this one man show takes the form of a confessional, explanatory rant.

The exploration of Bacon's unabashed, unsentimental and at times outright aggressive attitude to sexuality and his homosexuality is interesting and at times uncovers some poignant moments

Roost is captivating to watch as the mercurial artist, who at times is deeply unpleasant and creepy while also frequently boiling into wild rages, depressed frenzies and thoughtful musings. The production, with direction from Paul Garnault, gives him plenty of opportunities to show all of these sides of Bacon, as it takes us through moments and periods of the artist's life. These are signposted by topic lines in the script, for example Berlin, London, 1942, the studio.

It's just as well these lines tell us the time and place because the show otherwise has no clear definition. There are no scene breaks and no clear throughline that we can latch onto, making this production a real challenge to follow.

Roost occasionally becomes other characters in other places, who speak to Bacon about various things, but the effect is bewildering. The language also produces this effect especially during moments where Bacon is contemplating his art. Sometimes he just seems to speak and speak, saying names and dates and places without any real direction.

The highlights tend to come during paragraphs about Bacon's sexual proclivity and practice. These are variously funny, uncomfortable, disturbing and outrageous. Roost makes good use of the three standing screens - the only set piece on the stage - to produce these feelings. For example, he hides behind one before popping out or sprawls himself onto one like a bedsheet. It is these moments, and when he approaches the audience as if to tell us a secret, in which he is most engaging and when it is easy to follow the narrative. Another highlight that is genuinely funny is when Bacon, who is working as an ARP Warden, seduces a man who is smoking on the London streets.

The real problem this show has is that it lacks focus. It isn't particularly funny and doesn't hone in on Bacon's art for any in-depth discussion. Surprisingly, no print, photo or representation of any of his pieces appears at any point, so anyone not already familiar with his work is left totally isolated on the occasions that it is brought up.

The exploration of Bacon's unabashed, unsentimental and at times outright aggressive attitude to sexuality and his homosexuality is interesting and at times uncovers some poignant moments, but it is certainly not the main focus of the show. So we're left with Bacon the man. Unfortunately Bacon the man was interesting in life because of his art, and so is a hard character to like on any other basis. 

Reviews by Andrew Forbes

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The Blurb

Pope Head returns to the Edinburgh Festival after a critically acclaimed east coast tour of Australia. ‘Roost sees his job, apparently as prising the persona from the person; allowing a little light to shine in vulnerable crevices. This he does with great art. And artifice. In fact, he’s been meticulous in inventing a credible version of Bacon: creepy, slathering and salacious, sublime thinker given to profound insights on the nature of the human condition’ (Syke on Stage).