In Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Henry states, “Anything is grand if done on a large enough scale”; with that in mind, The Four Fridas could certainly be described as grand. With a piece that is pure spectacle, and, to its credit, unashamedly so, it would be extremely difficult to walk away without feeling impressed. For a start, one doesn’t expect to find a set of such beauty and detail on an open expanse of concrete in the middle of Woolwich. Bearing in mind that any description I gave here would not do the set justice, I will simply say you can expect a crippled tram, and enough technical gizmos to equip half of Glastonbury.
The Four Fridas sells itself as ‘An open air spectacular, inspired by the life and art of Frida Kahlo’, and the clue is in the word ‘inspired’. As with anything that relies on spectacle, the show had barely anything resembling a solid narrative; however, this was not the piece’s intention, instead giving us glimpses into the life of Kahlo, and invoking the work she created, structured loosely around the four elements. This was achieved through nearly every medium you could imagine: from rich light shows and videos, to explosions and fireworks – this is certainly a show where you should be expecting loud noises and flashing lights.
From what I learnt through the performance, Kahlo’s work had a certain visceral quality, and that was the driving force behind the spectacle. The narration was lyrical, yet punchy – and, as a result, occasionally sounded like an evening of slam poetry – whilst the dance and movement sequences ranged from aggressive attack to balletic air gymnastics. Particularly beautiful were the sequences built around Kahlo’s obsession with butterflies, which lent itself to movement, as well as building on the disabled Kahlo’s dream to fly.
Given the artistic scale of this piece, credit has to go to the creative team, in particular the designer, Georgia Lowe. Some of the effects achieved in this piece left jaws dangling and had gasps escaping from mouths, such as an entire stage tilting and lifting 20 feet above the air, only to still have performers clambering over it, and videos handily projected on it. And, to top it all off, there is a coup de theatre straight out of traditional Mexican culture that would not be advised to anyone with a fear of heights.
Unfortunately, despite all these extravagances, there are holes in the proceedings. As touched on above, there is little by way of narrative, story, or indeed anything much to emotionally cling onto. This does mean, when the spectacle slumps – which, giving credit where credit’s due, was rare – one’s attention can wander quite easily, having nothing much to be invested in. Perhaps this could have been dealt with through working on the narration; however, in that area, half of it was lost, and I’m still unsure whether it was due to a technical issue or the performances.
However, the piece aims to be spectacle, and in that it succeeds. As a result – and I apologise if this is an odd critical response – it makes for a very good evening out. There are stalls selling hearty burritos, and cold beers and margaritas, perfect after the roasting heatwave of today, and as dusk falls, you can get lost in a hyperbole of escapist spectacle.
The Four Fridas is playing the Royal Artillery Barracks until 4 July as part of the Greenwich+Docklands International Festival. For more information and tickets, see the Greenwich+Docklands International Festival website.