THEATRE REVIEW | McQueen, Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London18th September 2015
Crass yob or fashion god? Both, actually. All bile, venom and spunk, Alexander McQueen was a mutant oik messiah, a sartorial serial-killer maniacally slashing mediocrity into mouth-watering magnificence. ★★★★
But that’s only when his brutally bi-polar, chemsex-twisted muse flew, of course, and new play McQueen – where he’s called Lee, his preferred name throughout – unflinchingly skewers his fatal, full-stop bungee-jump into oblivion.
If the plot’s simple, the treatment, like McQueen himself, is insolently audacious. It’s the night of McQueen’s suicide, and an anxious Lee – (Stephen Wight) is surprised late at night by impulsive house intruder Dahlia (Carly Bawden).
Instantly, Dahlia’s nerdy, conflicted, fan-girl worship acts as mental crystal-meth to Lee, and triggers an elegiac night of non-stop revelations. Burst after imagistic burst reveals Lee’s muses, mentors, likings and loathings, collapsing time and space with shockingly raw character expóses.
That’s where McQueen truly impresses. If his supposedly blunt, scumbag genius was secretly held in contempt by snobs – Givenchy called him ‘le football thug’ – Lee in reality was painfully self-aware and insightful. One scathing scene gorgeously massacres smug faux-sophistication; a vapid reporter’s dissection of a woman is witheringly undone by Lee’s breezily compassionate take.
So forget strict, dull, lazy biography nailed dead and rotting to the stage. Instead, this is fraught, suicide theatre superbly deployed as a multi-media, psychic minefield. Mime, pumping catwalk themes and video backdrops forensically flesh out Lee’s screaming inner self with an assurance clumsy naturalism would kill for.
It’s an exact, brilliantly nuanced barometer of a frenzied gay genius’s mind. Time and again, music indelibly stains the action and spotlights Lee’s moods, from Nirvana’s brooding ‘Come As You Are’ to the hallucinatory grandeur of Handel’s Sarabande. And linear logic, throughout, is blatantly sacrificed for wrenchingly exact, emotional precision.
That’s McQueen’s towering strength, shatteringly used in Lee’s lynchpin exchange with fashionista Isabella Blow, his triple-goddess muse, patron and financial angel.
As played by Tracy-Ann Oberman, Blow’s a virtuoso study in slinky, fatally insecure hauteur. Both terminally damaged, she and Lee cling like frightened children to each other, as needy, emotionally naked and iconic as Rolling Stone magazine’s cover of John Lennon cradled by Yoko Ono.
But that beautiful innocence makes only half of a shocking, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf brutality. It’s as horribly fascinating as watching slow, incremental torture, a frenzied kaleidoscope of pain, grief, betrayal and back-stabbing, as Blow’s callously thrown aside, and Lee’s vicious need to succeed shapes his signature, ‘savage beauty’ ethic.
Directly sourced from Darwin’s take on nature – ‘red in tooth and claw’ – Lee’s manic, unstable, all-or-nothing creative process was pure Russian Roulette. Onstage, nightmare despair follows each ecstatic peak, awesomely mimicked by surging son et lumiere effects, as Lee, anxious, fragile and broken, exits his unbearable, trampoline existence to Marilyn Manson’s nihilistic, misfit anthem, ‘Beautiful People’.
Oddly inspirational, a slow-burn triumph of subtle but often savage insight, McQueen deliberately spits on hysterical, West End Wendy fireworks. Instead, it’s far more rewarding; resonant, fully adult theatre worthy of Tony Kushner and Patrick Marber, and more remarkably contemporary than either.
Until 7 November 2015. Tickets: 020 7930 8800; trh.co.uk
By Sasha DeSuinn | @msSashaDarling