Austin Pendleton’s one-woman show, Woman Before a Glass, is an ambitious, unapologetic portrayal of Peggy Guggenheim, the controversial collector made enfant terrible of the twentieth century art world.

The show begins with a flurry of feminine frivolity as Guggenheim, played by Judy Rosenblatt, flounces onto the stage, brandishing a brocade of designer dresses, declaring she has nothing to wear. Hers is a magnetic persona as she addresses the audience directly. In doing so, she makes them co-conspirator in the deliciously lewd quips and jibs she directs at the Italian TV crew waiting to interview her, “ciao, bonjour, don’t come too close blue boy. Professionally I mean, personally he can come as close as he likes”. This hyper-sexualised dialogue does for a moment dissipate as Guggenheim’s attention turns to the past. With a fascinating false nonchalance she reveals tiny portions of the tumultuous tales that have formed her narrative – the “dull as dishwater” mother, the abrasive and aggressive husband, the rampant sex with Samuel Becket, the rejection from the Louvre and so on.

It is in the first scene that the dual tone of the story is set. A story made light-hearted with laughter and lust, steeped in sadness, drowned in loneliness. A loneliness that is perpetuated by the self-inflicted death of Guggenheim’s daughter, Pegeen. There are a number of sublime soliloquies that speak to Guggenheim’s residual sadness, including her recount of her father’s death on the Titanic, the death of her sister in childbirth, the invasion of three Nazi soldiers into her bedchambers, and the final moment of moonlight remembrance as she laments the death of her most beloved child, the “slim, beautiful, delicate goddess too fragile to be mine”.

Judy Rosenblatt is captivating, masterfully straddling the multifaceted complexities of her character whilst expertly manipulating the emotions of the audience. She carries the concept of the one-woman show, although the performance may benefit from an additional actress in the form of Pegeen, so as to make her death more emotive from the audience. Scriptwriter, Lanie Robertson should also be commended for weaving history, art, pathos and character into the story of a woman so shrouded in stereotypes.

Peggy Guggenheim built one of the greatest troves of modern art, including works by Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock, yet was branded a striving dilettante, a narcissist, a nymphomaniac, an imposter, a faker of good taste, an undesirable floozy and worse. In some instances, the play does perpetuate those stereotypes, but it also offers a fascinating look into a far more complex reality. It is a challenging play made to be enjoyed by those who already have a love of art and history, but that does not detract from the power of the performance.

Woman Before a Glass will be playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre until the 3 February 2018

Photo: Robert Workman