Last updated 09:31, June 27 2016
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Written by Sophie Faucher
Translated by Neil Bartlett
Directed by Lyndee-Jane Rutherford
Starring Kali Kopae, Bronwyn Turei
La Casa Azul – Inspired by the Writings of Frida Kahlo invites you to experience not only Frida Kahlo’s world, but also her unique way of seeing the world.
Originally directed by Robert Lepage (Ex Machina), director Lyndee-Jane Rutherford and designer Ian Harman (Midsummer, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Ache) put their spin on this exquisite piece of theatre, inspired by Kahlo’s Intimate Diary. Historical events are overlaid with her paintings. Documentary texts are used alongside her most personal diary entries. Images flourish where words alone cannot convey the sheer strangeness and intensity of her life.
La Casa Azul (The Blue House) is Kahlo’s birthplace in Mexico, where she lived with husband artist Diego Rivera and where she died in 1954
Running time: 85 minutes (no interval)
25 June – 23 July – ALL SHOWS NOW SOLD OUT!
Tues – Sat 7.30pm
Sun – 4.30pm
Preview 24 June
Fri – 7.30pm
Running time: 85 minutes (no interval)
TeManawa exhibition – Frida Kahlo Photo Exhibition
Images from Frida Kahlo’s personal and historic collection of photographs will be exhibited in New Zealand for the first time. Te Manawa Museum of Art, Science and History in Palmerston North, is the exclusive New Zealand venue for this exciting international tour.
Frida Kahlo’s distinctive colourful self-portraits and extraordinary life have made her one of the most recognised artists of the 20th Century. Less well known is her interest in photography.
Upon Kahlo’s death in 1954, more than 6,500 personal photographs belonging to her and husband/artist Diego Rivera were sealed and stored at the Casa Azul, her home in Mexico City. For more than half a century this collection of personal memorabilia remained hidden from the public.
This is a unique opportunity for New Zealand to delve into the life and artistic practice of Frida Kahlo from this important collection of personal memorabilia, which remained hidden from the public for over fifty years after Kahlo’s death in 1954.
La Casa Azul
By Sophie Faucher, translated by Neil Bartlett, directed by Lyndee-Jane Rutherford
Circa Theatre, until July 23
Many know the paintings of Frida Kahlo and murals of her husband Diego Rivera, both famous within their native country of Mexico and outside.
But Kahlo the person is just as fascinating as her paintings, which is what Sophie Faucher’s play La Casa Azul, translated by Neil Bartlett and currently playing at Circa Theatre, is all about.
Known as a naive folk artist, predominately of brightly coloured self-portraits, the play is presented not too dissimilar to a collage of her paintings, showing snippets of Frida and her tempestuous relationship with Diego Rivera, all taken from her writings.
She spent much of her her life having great difficulty walking, through contracting polio and a bad traffic accident as a child, and was often in much pain. Thus, her mood swings were big and emotional, often going into self-appraisal and communing with La Pelona – death.
But as tortured a soul as she was, it didn’t stop her living the high-life, in both Mexico and America and having numerous lovers, both male and female, including Leo Trotsky when he came to live with her and her husband.
And although the play does seem to present a rather once-over-lightly look at a very complex and fascinating person, it does show many facets of the women behind the paintbrush.
Her paintings are very visual and so too is the style of the production, which is the play’s strength, in that it is as visual as it is verbal, with many scenes containing little or no dialogue.
Director Lyndee-Jane Rutherford and set and costume designer Ian Harman have done an incredible job bringing all this to fruition in a way that captures beautifully the life of Frida and her husband Diego.
Kali Kopae and Gavin Rutherford give outstanding performances in these two key roles, particularly Kopae, in that not only does she look the part, from images known of Frida, but the physicality of her limp and more importantly her internalising of the character makes her become Frida for the duration of the play so that her pain and joy are the audiences pain and joy. Rutherford’s Diego complements Kopae’s performance perfectly, capturing all the emotional turmoil Diego went through living with Frida.
Rounding out numerous other characters is Bronwyn Turei, making this a fascinating piece of theatre, well worth watching.
What a richly insightful play and production this is: impeccably cast, designed and directed. All the creative components play off and with each other to draw us into this subjective exploration of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s world, inspired by Kahlo’s ‘Intimate Diary’ (plus letters, postcards and other documents) and written by Quebecois playwright and actress Sophie Faucher.
It was Faucher’s short radio play that attracted the interest of director Robert Lepage, who worked with her – as playwright and in the role of Frida – to develop it as a stage play. Their La Casa Azul, translated into English by Neil Bartlett, opened in London in 2002.[i] It needs to be noted that while it was ‘lo-tech’ by Lapage standards, this Circa production of that script, created with a fraction of their budget, is even more so, which throws the focus on the actors and text – and that’s just fine, given this director, cast and the designers that serve them. (Lizzie Loveridge’s Curtain Up London review of the 2002 production mentions some extraordinary effects and goes so far as to say “The visual strength of this play is also its weakness.”[ii])
Most of Frida Kahlo’s paintings are self-portraits. “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best,” she said.[iii] Born on the outskirts of Mexico City, in the blue house (la casa azul) she lived in most of her life, she contracted polio (aged six) then 12 years later sustained severe injuries when a bus she was in collided with a trolley car. Both events, plus living with the subsequent pain and coping with ongoing health issues, underpinned her sense of isolation.
This is what I recall as, in our seats pre-show, we hear a soft voice speaking in Spanish (I assume it is a museum guide) and see elements of Ian Harman’s simple set design glow and fade. Everything – the pillow on the hospital bed; the painting work-station at which a wheelchair is parked; the very ordinary wooden wardrobe – becomes a work of art when isolated this way.
Jennifer Lal’s overall lighting design is a work of art too, as is Emi Pogoni and Lyndee-Jane Rutherford’s sound design and John Strang’s AV design. Having breathed life into the space before the show-proper begins, their work continues to pulsate throughout.
It’s a low-key start. Kali Kopae arrives as herself, explores the space like a fascinated visitor to La Casa Azul museum and inexorably metamorphoses into the persona of Frida Kahlo, giggling as she draws in the iconic mono-brow; reading Frida’s notes about colours and what we associate with them …
Revolution is referenced (although she was actually three by then, Kahlo claimed she was born when the Mexican Revolution began, in 1910) but Frida declares the “real revolution” began when she met the famous mural artist Diego Rivera. The scene where she brings her art work for honest appraisal to Diego – perfectly pitched by Gavin Rutherford – is the first of many that variously simmer, sizzle, burn and explode with the full colour-palette of emotions.
Kopae embodies Kahlo completely, most impressively with her spirited rising above the pervasive pain and physical limitations. The way she tells Diego about the bus accident and how she was injured epitomises that spirit. Then later, when the reality of what she has laughed off brings about a miscarriage, the authenticity of the experience is as powerful a moment as you may hope to experience in live theatre. It’s hard to imagine anyone else owning this role more convincingly.
Similarly Diego has a solo scene entitled ‘Russian Roulette’ that is hugely dramatic because we are right there in the moment with him. Such calls on our capacity to empathise only increase the value of the times we are compelled to assess more objectively the less savoury aspects of Diego’s behaviour and Frida’s relationship with him.
Six other roles are played with consummate skill by Bronwyn Turei, including a beautifully nuanced Cristina Kahlo, Frida’s sister. The others employ cleverly-crafted paper masks, including Tina Modotti, “Italian photographer, model, actress, revolutionary political activist, and friend and lover to both Diego and Frida” (did she really share their wedding night bed with them?) and Leon Trotsky, with who Frida has an affair.
The Registry Office worker is deliciously comical in her responses to the contract Frida and Diego have negotiated for their second marriage. But Turei’s most pervasive character is La Pelona, a personification of Death whose mask adorns a skull with fiesta flowers. Frida’s line, “I spent my whole life dying,” fully justifies La Pelona’s omnipresence. Their final scene together brings the play to a potent conclusion – and we are reminded this has all been one woman’s subjective response to the phenomenon of Frida Kahlo.
Harman’s costumes, props and masks enhance and enrich the action throughout, along with the other design elements. There is as much to see and think about in this production as there is in a Kahlo painting.
So as a play, what is La Casa Azul about that’s bigger than itself? The purpose of art, perhaps? Diego declares, “All art is propaganda – but for what?” then claims it is an essential part of all human existence and must therefore belong (be accessible to?) to all of humanity. Only those who share in the suffering of all humanity and take up arms against the oppressors may call themselves artists, he asserts.
It’s arguable that Frida suffers more than the self-serving, libidinous Diego, and she certainly ‘takes up arms’ against the pain that could well have oppressed her, by producing vibrant works of art. Yet she says towards the end of the play, as she prepares to attend the opening of her final exhibition, “I’ve spent my whole life standing in the shadow of a genius. Fine, that’s the way things had to be; that was my proper place. So tell me, why after all these years are they so interested in my work? I took my tears and turned them into paintings. That’s it! Tonight everyone will finally see that there is actually nothing to see!”
But whose works have endured? A combined exhibition of their works has just opened in Sydney and it is Frida’s paintings that are being used to promote it. Perhaps there is something in Frida’s story, and in her view of herself, that speaks to the experiences and perceptions of all women artists; of women in general in a persistently male-dominated world.
Whichever way you look at it, La Casa Azuloffers a rich vicarious experience and plenty to ponder in its wake.
For some Wellingtonians, their knowledge of Frida Kahlo might only go as far as the women on the walls of Mexican restaurants who looks on as they sip their frozen margarita.
She has become the inspiration behind many a Day of the Dead costume – with the blooming headdresses, vibrant clothing, and yes, that monobrow.
Others will know of her as Frida Kahlo, the passionate and politically active, self-portrait artist plagued with illness, who became a feminist icon and a Mexican national treasure.
Regardless of what you already know about Kahlo, a new production at Circa theatre is ready to tell her story in a way never seen on our shores before, in La Casa Azul: Inspired by the Writings of Frida Kahlo.
La Casa Azul (The Blue House, Kahlo’s birthplace in Mexico City) is inspired by Kahlo’s Intimate Diary, and directed by Wellingtonian Directed by Lyndee-Jane Rutherford.
Originally directed by Robert Lepage, it follows Kahlo’s story, from her tumultuous marriage to fellow artist Diego Rivera, a bus accident that affected her health forever, how she channelled pain into art, and her unique and colourful way of seeing the world.
Rutherford joins Ian Harman, Set Designer and Costume Designer of the Year at the 2015 Wellington Theatre Awards, to tell the story by overlaying historical events with paintings, her most personal diary entries, mask, puppetry, AV, and vivid imagery.
Taking on the role of Kahlo is Kali Kopae, 2015’s Actress of the Year, while Bronwyn Turei (TV2’s Go Girls) makes her Wellington stage debut, and Gavin Rutherford plays Diego Rivera.
When a fellow member of the Circa council mentioned to Rutherford that they had seen La Casa Azul on the West End, Rutherford only knew an “average” amount about Kahlo.
Reading the play, and noticing Wellington’s current affinity with everything Mexican, Rutherford felt inspired.
But the stars really aligned for the production in March when Rutherford and Harman were invited to the opening of the Frida Kahlo photographic exhibition at Te Manawa in Palmerston North.
There, they met Hilda Trujillo, who was visiting from Mexico, and is the director of La Casa Azul – now a museum dedicated to Kahlo.
“I kind of grabbed her,” rutherford says, “Because I thought, I really need to meet this woman, and how incredible was it that she was in New Zealand and I was doing a play about La Casa Azul?”
Through her translator, Trujillo invited Rutherford to breakfast in Wellington.
“She was the most incredibly gorgeous person and we went to the Museum Hotel, I took my cultural advisor and I was on an absolute high afterwards, she told me secrets about Frida Kahlo that no one else would know, and I’ve included some things, subtly.”
But what was also great about meeting Trujillo was receiving a sort of “seal of approval”, from the woman who perhaps knows more about Frida Kahlo than anyone else in the world.
“She saw some of our images and she basically gave us her blessing, it really felt like she understood that we were artists, just like Frida Kahlo.
“I got a real sense that she felt we were creating a story and that Frida Kahlo would love what we are doing, and I really appreciated that.”
It was important to Rutherford that the show have a cultural advisor to make sure Mexican culture was respected throughout..
She initially endeavoured to cast Mexican actors, but after auditions, felt that Kopae, a Kiwi, really was the best fit for the role.
“It was one of those tingles up the spine, welling up in the eyes, kind of the moments – Kali was instantly Frida Kahlo, and I thought right, this is the right person.
“We also have the wholehearted support from the Mexican Embassy here, they have been absolutely wonderful and are coming in crowds to see it.”
Kopae says she feels privileged to play such a fearless woman like Kahlo, but with heavy scenes, including a miscarriage, it has been an interesting role to tackle.
“The loss of a baby on stage, that’s a big ask, I couldn’t do it half-hearted. We’ve done it in the most tasteful way, but that’s probably been the toughest challenge.”
One of the most remarkable things about Frida Kahlo, Rutherford says, is that she channelled her physical and emotional pain into her self portraits, many of which were done in front of a mirror from her sickbed or wheelchair.
As well as a story about pain and tragedy, Rutherford says La Casa Azul is also a fearless love story, with glimmers of comedy, and an insight into the spirit of Kahlo, who once said, “I took my tears, and turned them into paintings”.
La Casa Azul, at Circa theatre now until July 23.
La Casa Azul – Inspired by the writings of Frida Kahlo
Taking on Frida Kahlo is no small task: she is an iconic figure that many love and admire – to most the story of her life is very familiar, and any production based on her must bring something new to the table.
She was a woman of strength and intensity, and a play based on her writings has the potential to delight immensely or dismally disappoint. This production was a success in every way, largely due to the outstanding performances from the play’s two lead actors, Kali Kopae and Gavin Rutherford, who play Kahlo and Rivera respectively. It also brought to light that Kahlo was not only a brilliant artist but a captivating writer as well.
Kopae’s resemblance to Kahlo is uncanny and her delivery brings the audience fully into the turbulent life Kahlo lived, particularly the physical pain and tumultuous love story between her and Rivera. Essentially, if you go to this production only to see Kopae’s spellbinding performance, it would be worth every penny.
Also, La Casa Azul uses puppetry and masks, largely through actress Bronwyn Turei (who plays multiple characters), in a fascinating and meaningful way. For example, Turei wearing a death mask follows Kahlo throughout the story. This adds a literal representation to the shadow of death that Kahlo herself felt accompanied her. The interactions between Kahlo and the death character are poignant.
Finally, Director Lyndee-Jane Rutherford and set and costume designer Ian Harman deserve accolades for portraying this dynamic woman in a bold, visually arresting production that in itself is a piece of living art.
“I took my tears and I turned them into paintings” – Frida Kahlo