Thursday, 12 January 2017

"Sing some more, and we'll travel on" - a review of David Bowie's Lazarus

In the last year of his life, David Bowie fulfilled his lifelong dream of writing a musical. With the help of co-writer Enda Walsh, producer Robert Fox and director Ivo van Hove, it played off Broadway in New York from December 2015 to January 2016, then moved to London's King's Cross Theatre that November. It finishes on 22 January and is now sold out, but I'm thankful to have seen it twice, and I think it's his crowning achievement. For all that it's inevitably a collaboration with a broad group of creative people, it may even be the best work he's ever done.

And yet, out of all his works, Lazarus is probably the hardest for me to write about. It's easy to say that it's a sequel to The Man Who Fell to Earth, the Walter Tevis novel which was adapted into a 1975 film starring Bowie as the central character. Lazarus shows us the alien Thomas Newton (played marvellously by the American actor Michael C Hall) forty years later. Having long failed in his mission to take water back to his drought-stricken home planet, he's holed up in a New York City apartment, addicted to gin and Twinkies. He's depressed and doesn't go out, reliant on his assistant Elly to keep him supplied and his home in some semblance of order. Deeply depressed because he's unable either to die or to go home, he's haunted by memories of his family light years away, and of his ex-girlfriend Mary Lou, who left him years ago. He's mentally falling apart, until a mysterious fourteen year old Girl, who remembers nothing about herself or her past, inexplicably arrives with her own mission. All she knows is that somehow, she has to help Thomas Newton.

Lazarus doesn't really have a conventional plot, but it has a story, which you have to kind of piece together yourself as it goes along. The story is Newton's journey from despair to hope, and to a kind of peace. But it's told almost like a dream (with a dream's unexpected shifts of character and mood); and along with Newton and Elly and Girl, there are several other characters with their own stories, who may or may not be real; they could be products of Newton's almost deranged mind. Even Girl may not be real; indeed, she's the character least likely to be, since most of the time only Newton can see her. But the mystery of her presence has another explanation, which she herself only realises near the end - and it's both a tragic and a deeply moving one.

If this sounds confusing, it is - at first. Several of the actors, in interviews, have suggested that it's best to simply sit and experience the play, without worrying too much about the story or what it “means”. This is good, because the experience itself is wonderful and there's a lot to enjoy. Firstly, of course, there's the music: about ten classic songs spanning the whole of Bowie's career, together with four which he wrote specially for the play (and they're not let downs by any means). The arrangements are crisp and tight, and gloriously sung, especially by Sophia Anne Caruso (still only fifteen years old) as Girl. Some songs, such as the recent Where Are We Now?, are very close in style and sound to the original, while others are so surprising that they sound virtually recomposed (I'd never realised before what a great song This Is Not America is! - or how relevant it feels to that country's situation now.) Like the play, they vary greatly in mood, from the tormented rage of Killing a Little Time to the upliftingly poppy Absolute Beginners. Even the vintage Changes sounds fresh and new, partly by shifting in mood more than the original, but also by being sung by a woman (Amy Lennox as Elly). And rather than sounding shoehorned into the play, each song expresses something about the character, characters or situation, heightening the emotions in the process. This is no jukebox musical; the songs are an inextricable part of the play.

Then there's the visual element, which is dazzling, considering there's hardly any set. Newton's flat is suggested by an unmade bed, a fridge, and a record player with two stacks of Bowie records! At the back of the stage, in the middle, is a white screen separating two big windows behind which the musicians play (almost unnoticed, the show itself being so mesmerising). The windows often show a New York skyline behind the musicians, at different times of day and night. On the screen in the middle, a dazzling succession of varied images is projected, often seeming to represent thoughts, images and memories in Newton's mind. This visual brilliance extends to the lighting, the colours, everything - it's amazing. I think David Bowie was to a large extent synaesthesic, as he said he could “see” music in his mind - the tone colours and textures automatically finding visual equivalents. Sometimes he even sketched or painted it, to help himself find what an album or song needed. This shows in Lazarus, which is truly a multimedia theatre experience - involving character, dialogue, action, music, lighting, film, abstract art and a rocket which Girl outlines on the floor with masking tape! I've truly never seen anything like it.

And I've barely yet mentioned the actors, characters, or the wonderful script, which is often moving and sometimes pretty funny. The first time I saw Lazarus I was near the back, and couldn't fully see the stage. I felt a bit distanced from the characters, both physically and emotionally, so much of the impact of the play was of a visceral kind; it was a lot just to take in the visuals and music. Because of this I ultimately decided to see it again, and from the middle of the second row I could see everything. I could see the entire stage, only about fifteen feet away. I could see the faces and emotions of the characters - Newton's torment, Elly's longing and confusion, and the pathetic yet oddly charismatic serial killer Valentine, played brilliantly by Michael Esper. The story made more sense; I could see the significance (not necessarily “meaning”) of events and characters. Michael Esper gave a thrilling performance of Valentine's Day (helped by brilliant lighting, visual and sound effects). Michael C Hall was very moving and, for me, made Newton more sympathetic than Bowie himself did in the original film. And most of all, his developing relationship with Girl was deeply touching. In the emotionally complex staging of Absolute Beginners, Newton sings the song platonically to Girl, while a confused Elly (who cannot see Girl) sings it romantically to Newton. Despite Elly's pain, the song marks a crucial point in the development of Newton and Girl's relationship, which is so central to the story and its eventual resolution. Whether she's real or not, Girl is who and what Newton needs to help him find peace, and once he realises that he has hope. He confesses to Valentine that it doesn't matter if she's real or not - he has something to live for. And I'll never forget the compassion and emotion in Caruso's incredibly expressive eyes, or the poetic strangeness of her vocal delivery at times (almost a little alien herself). Or the sudden expression of love and affection (which I won't give away!) at the end of Life on Mars? Hall is already, justifiably, a star of both TV and stage, and I'll be very surprised if Caruso doesn't have a similarly bright career ahead of her, having seen the depth and variety of which she's capable while still a minor. She brings not only heartbreaking poignancy but also feistiness to the role of Girl - and is as funny in some moments as she's convincingly confused or frightened in others.

The climax of the play brings resolution both to Newton's conflicts and to his relationship with Girl. It's hard to even give a sense of it without plot spoiling, but I'll try. Girl remembers who she is and why she's there - not only to help Newton but to ask him to help her. Like him, she is lost between two worlds (No Plan, the wonderful new song that Bowie wrote for her, gives an early hint of this). And ultimately, it’s the murderous Valentine who unexpectedly helps Newton to free her. If Valentine too exists in Newton's mind, it's almost as if Newton has to accept and turn towards the rage in himself, before he can truly be free from his despair.

Although the ending is ambiguous, and like so much else, probably takes place only in his mind, I don't think it matters. What matters is that he finds peace; like the original Lazarus, he is reborn. And at the very end, Girl and Newton sing a song to each other, a very famous song, but completely changed in character so that it brings a feeling of ultimate rest at its close. It’s tender, playful and incredibly beautiful, with an unexpected and deeply appropriate change of two lines halfway through. Before Girl almost literally puts Newton to bed, and a final, very moving image is projected onto the screen.

Now I've seen a few live operas in my time, and I know that Bowie, for all his talent and influence, was no Mozart. But this ending reminds me of the quiet emotional climaxes (similarly involving the love of two characters) that end two of Mozart's greatest stage works. I was moved by the end of Lazarus just as I was by those earlier experiences years ago. I felt myself choking up inside - and yes, I cried at the beauty of it.

Lazarus, of course, has added resonance because (along with the album Blackstar) it was Bowie's final creative work. Strangely, it seems to complement Blackstar; while the album is mostly dark and introspective, Lazarus, for all its juxtaposed moods from nightmare to comedy, feels ultimately like a celebration. As I said at the start, it may even be Bowie's greatest achievement. Despite the fact that it's a play, involving many collaborators from the actors/singers to co-writer and director, the whole experience feels like Bowie, as much as any of his albums do. Partly, of course, it's the songs! Bowie worked closely with the arranger Henry Hey, and with the three actors Hall, Esper and Caruso, all of whom came to London from the original New York cast. Caruso says that Bowie gave her advice on the phrasing of Life on Mars?, as he went to rehearsals when he was well enough (the cast apparently had no idea he was ill). So he was closely involved, and it's not surprising that the experience felt as if Bowie was being channelled through the efforts of everyone involved. I've been a fan since 1982, so I should know! :-)

The play was also imbued with many of Bowie's preoccupations, familiar to fans of his earlier work. Serial killing, and a fourteen year old girl, are the subject of his great 1995 album Outside. Isolation, loneliness and addiction are familiar themes throughout his work, and Bowie's identification with Newton is well known; during rehearsals, he once accidentally referred to Newton as “me”. As in the original film, Newton seems to express something for those of us who are human on the outside but feel alien on the inside - strangers in a strange land. (Many fans felt that way about his work from the beginning; it was as if he gave young people permission to be odd, to be different, and because of the lasting quality of his best music, those fans now span the generations). In Lazarus, I wonder if Newton's retreat from the world reflects Bowie's well known attitudes to fame and celebrity. In 2004, Bowie retreated into ordinary life (he too lived in a New York penthouse!) after a heart attack curtailed an exhausting world tour. He drew and painted, he watched movies, he enjoyed life in a loving family. And he watched and helped his daughter grow up - a daughter who at the time he wrote Lazarus, was the same age as Girl. It was while Lazarus was in production that Bowie realised he would soon have to say goodbye to his own Girl.

There's a lovely moment in the play where Newton asks Girl (who says she knows everything about him) to tell him about a good memory he has - something he has never told anyone. And Girl radiantly describes him climbing a hill with his daughter (“about my age”) on their home planet, to sit and look at the stars. He'd tell her stories about flying through space. And when he stopped talking, his daughter would say to him, “Speak some more, and we'll travel on.”

On 7 December 2015, David Bowie attended the premiere of Lazarus at the New York Theatre Workshop. One of the actors described the shining happiness on his face as he joined them to take their bows. It was the final public appearance of a man who loved to work outside of the cultural mainstream (and Lazarus is pretty outside!), yet was only rarely outside of the public consciousness.

Just over a month later he died, surrounded by his family. Maybe to travel on, or maybe not. If he did, I hope he found peace.

After the premiere, 7 December 2015. Photographer unknown.

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