To kick off my theatrical blogs for the new year, I’d like to just take you guys back a little to the matinee of New Year’s Eve. I could be found at King’s Cross Theatre seeing Lazarus, the new musical by David Bowie and Enda Walsh. I am, regrettably not as well versed in David Bowie’s work as I would like to be (but the little I do know I enjoy), so came to this more on the level as a theatregoer who wanted to challenge myself with a new show instead of falling back on my familiar favourites again instead of a devoted fan of his music. Conversations I was having with friends who had seen the show before me were interesting; I was constantly hearing that it was unlike anything they’d ever seen before, not a ‘musical’ in the traditional sense of the word, and my favourite: “don’t try and make sense of it the first time round.” As such, I was by turns intrigued and, if I’m honest, a little bit apprehensive. Yet what transpired during that one hour 50 minutes was extraordinary: it IS unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and is definitely not what I’d call a musical in the familiar, traditional sense. I certainly didn’t understand everything that was going on, but the best part about that was: I’m not sure I was meant to, and in that sense Lazarus at least in my eyes became more than a musical and instead becomes a piece of glorious, undefinable, beautifully haunting art.
Inspired by the 1963 novel The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis, which in turn served as the basis the film of the same name that Bowie starred in, Lazarus introduces us once more to Thomas Jerome Newton, a humanoid alien who after a failed first attempt to return home (see the novel and the 1976 cult classic film) is still stuck on Earth. Bitter, broken and surviving only on copious amounts of television, gin and (when he can be bothered to walk around his apartment and find them) Twinkies, we follow Newton for few days, where “the arrival of another lost soul – might set him finally free”.
Jan Versweyveld’s scenic and lighting design is one of the things I loved most about this piece. Newton’s apartment is sparsely furnished: a bed, fridge and a lone record player from which Ricky Nelson’s version of Hello, Mary Lou opens the show (Irony abounds as Mary Lou is the name of Newton’s ex-lover) but at the back of the stage, there is a video screen; which serves for some of the most creative and striking visuals I believe I’ll ever see on stage, with video design by Tal Yarden. Figures emerge from the screen and backdrops are even projected onto the back wall of Newton’s apartment, where from behind a set of windows, we see the band playing. There are points where characters press themselves up against these, as if trying to escape, I remember being particularly touched by the moment where Newton does this, whilst singing Lazarus: “this way or no way, you know I’ll be free, just like that bluebird… now, ain’t that just like me?” because it, for me, sets up the dynamic of the show; the interplay between Newton’s gin addled sense of reality and fiction, and how the line between the two has and will continue to become increasingly blurred. The clever blend of all these elements, the more natural verses the fantastical things that Newton sees (or does he?) put me in mind of a science fiction cum fantasy movie and I loved it, despite the confusion that is consistently simmering away about the action that unfolds.
Michael C. Hall is a powerhouse as Newton. As someone who was completely in the dark about his stage work and having only seen snippets of Dexter, I was floored by his vocals and at times thought he sounded so like Bowie it was deliciously uncanny and sent shivers down my spine. Not to mention the fact that he rarely leaves the stage, and often spends time just watching his fellow cast members: even when he probably wasn’t meant to be the main focus of my attention, I found myself watching him, wondering what Newton was thinking; Hall brings a hypnotic quality to Newton’s tormented nature that charmed me.
Newton is visited by an eerie, otherworldly Girl that claims she is there to help him. She knows everything about him, but nothing about herself. It soon becomes apparent that she, like Newton, is trapped between worlds, and the two share some wonderfully tender and equally amusing moments. The Girl comes to symbolise hope to Newton, ‘building’ him a new rocket, helping him move on from Mary Lou: “when you’re stuck between two worlds – it’s only right that you try something incredible…” but for me the power in their relationship comes from the fact that it deals with the idea of loss, acceptance and the freedom acceptance can offer. In my eyes, it also plays around with the idea of identity, and whether we can or indeed should let ourselves be defined by a single thing, or are we just all fluid, a bit like the nature of the piece itself. Nowhere did I think this more prominent as in Heroes, where Newton and the girl have embraced their freedom and playfully slide around in her ‘blood’ which is white, like milk, (perhaps symbolic of rebirth), Newton having at the same time concluded “we’re nothing, and nothing can help us”. Incidentally, I think this arrangement of my favourite Bowie song (musical supervision and orchestrations by Henry Hey) was my favourite of all, it’s haunting, poignant and at the same time I felt hopeful while listening.
Sophia Anne Caruso is an ethereal delight as the Girl, and struck me as possessing a charisma and stage presence far beyond her young years. Her singing is eerie yet pitch perfect, blending wonderfully with Hall’s and also being a force of nature on its own; the ease with which she tackles Life on Mars and This is Not America is spellbinding.
Newton’s assistant Elly was the character I had the most fun trying to decipher. Seemingly part of the real world, she nonetheless blends into Newton’s ‘reality’ with alarming ease. Dissatisfied with her life and lack of fulfilment, she in one particularly memorable scene, she strips down and eventually morphs into the guise of Mary Lou. She seemingly feels overwhelmed by this but is reluctant to let it go because it gives her life meaning, and I felt I could relate to this struggle; Amy Lennox brings a likeable and grounded quality to a role that at one point brings us a surreal and utterly bonkers scene that features both her and the Girl dressed as Mary Lou talking to Newton while a video of Mary Lou dancing also plays behind! At times, it perhaps got a bit too obscure and I wondered what the hell was happening, but I let this go and just decided to run with it and stop thinking so hard.
Add to this mix Michael Esper who gives a deliciously creepy turn as Valentine, a serial killer disillusioned with life and the state of the world, and you will sometimes find yourself thrown into a theatrical world that is impossible to work out, but if you embrace this fact with an open mind, it’s truly rewarding and gives you near endless scope for interpretation. That, in itself is for me the power and joy of good art – it’s subjective and my ideas about it will probably be different to everyone elses, and I don’t know if I’m even on the right track with how I looked at this show. Nevertheless, what a ride it proved to be, I feel blessed to have had such a powerful, moving theatrical experience.