HOME Theatre, Manchester; Friday 13th August, 2021
Things you need to know: he was a bit of an arrogant arse; she couldn’t get enough of him.
Rashdash Theatre’s “Look At Me Don’t Look At Me” opens with a smoky, hazy melancholy which immediately suggests that both He and She are just as annoying and dreadful as each other and should, in fact, probably both be ignored in the hope that they might just go away.
He (Becky Wilkie) sits tapping away at a piano, dressed impeccably well in a formal dinner suit, with a perfectly prim and proper bowler hat. This guy reeks of over-ripe establishmentism, and it doesn’t take long to deduce that he probably really quite likes that.
She (Abi Greenland) stands at a distance, in an elegant dress with a microphone in her hand. In no time at all she relays distressing, (he said <–> she said) musical anecdotes of how they fell in love, then fell out, then back in again, etc, etc.
Lizzie Siddal was a 19th century artist and poet who sat as a model for pre-Raphaelite founder Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Artist and muse were eventually married – and now here they are, on stage, a century-and-a-half later to tell us all about it.
The opening scenes / songs are delivered in a cabaret style. Delivered as it is at HOME theatre’s temporary outdoor site, these opening moments have the strange feel of walking into a new music venue for the first time – the bar and the setting are unfamiliar, the music and the performers are unknown. It might be best to drink up and move on as these two are a bit full of it?
But then something special starts to happen: Lizzie really opens up. The cabaret-ness of it all also disappears, at some indeterminate point the show seamlessly transforms from being gratuitously musical to being something much more theatrical instead.
More and more of Lizzie’s underlying character emerges, suddenly the songs begin to find a mooring point and, despite the fact that the entire performance is undeniably a succession of musical pieces, a full and complete story is successfully told.
The Lizzie-Dante ecosystem is a world of crazed infatuation and romantic mania. After a sluggish start the performance plunges into a deep and mysterious romantic world which yields an experience that feels both relatable and convincing.
“He has elegant hands,” claims Lizzie, “I love the stink of him.”
“No one will remember me for being a boyfriend” claims Dante, arrogantly insisting that his art can justify his adultery.
It’s no longer a cabaret performance, this is now a murky, salacious exposition of gossip and intrigue; we’re up for this because Lizzie’s done a very good job of setting the scene and sucking us right in.
The confrontational nature of the musical sparring makes for a surprisingly thrilling spectacle – surprising because the tempo of the music is mostly slow and gentle. A mild sense of terror begins to crystallise around the realisation that these two are really quite unhinged; that then couples with a powerful feeling of contempt that they could’ve driven each other to the edge of an emotional cliff in the way that they clearly have.
It perhaps feels like eavesdropping on some divorce proceedings, but the indifference felt at hearing the initial gossip and scandal is powerfully replaced by a strong and clear affiliation to the case put forward by Lizzie. She even enters the audience space, and at that point only the coldest of hearts would fail to be moved by her powerful narrative.
“Look At Me Don’t Look At Me” seems to paint a picture on stage. And just like one of Dante’s paintings it takes time to enter the psyche and settle. But when it does the crazed actions of this warring couple become close to understandable, Lizzie’s ambition is clear: plunge headfirst into temptation but let me be safe from harm; be true to me but then always remain a delicious mystery; look at me but then don’t look at me.
Ultimately, it is the paintings of Dante that are hanging on modern gallery walls; but then the images therein are of Lizzie. So what then is the reality behind those artistic pieces? What price did muse and painter have to pay for this art? And who paid it?
Photography: Sebastian Hinds