London theatre trip (5): David Bowie and Enda Walsh: Lazarus, New York Theatre Workshop, New York City / King’s Cross Theatre, London (Director: Ivo van Hove)
By Sascha Krieger
The last few months of David Bowie’s life were among his busiest and most productive. Not only did he release a final, widely celebrated album, Blackstar, just two days before he died on January 10, 2016, four weeks prior, his first and only musical premiered in New York City. Lazarus is a sequel to his 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth (and the Walter Tevis novel it was based on). Its title character Thomas Jerome Newton, a humanoid alien, is still stuck on earth 40 years later, a shadow of his former productive self, who spends his days watching television, drinking gin and eating Twinkies at his stylish penthouse. A lost soul, misfit, outcast who dreams of returning but has given up hope. He is surrounded by three new characters: his assistant Elly who becomes obsessed with him in a desperate attempt to escape the boredom of her own life and the expectations she does not want to fulfill; a man named Valentine who is a restless drifter whose only release is murdering people; and a young girl who promises Newton to help him leave earth but who might exist just in his head. As we later find out, she, too, is looking for what all the others are seeking as well: peace of mind, rest.
Of course, the play – as the album – can be interpreted as a dying man’s artistic attempt to come to terms with the inevitable. The musical’s first song is the title track, „Lazarus“, which starts: „Look up here, I’m in heaven“ (the song also happened to be the first single from Blackstar). This explanation might be a little too simple. Man’s mortality, the absurdity of human existence and the individual alienation in a hostile world have always been key themes in Bowie’s oeuvre. This is why he was drawn to Newton in the first place, an alter ego just like his own creation Ziggy Stardust, not coincidentally another alien. This time, the alien has multiplied. Four restless souls drift through the scene, look for companionship but only find loneliness. Violence, lust, addiction, longing resignation: their responses to the cold universe are different, their existential crises the same. Acclaimed director Ivo van Hove and his set designer Jan Versweyveld have constructed a polished, cold apartment sketch in bronze colour, rich and lifeless. A huge TV screens is in the middle, Newton’s main connection to the outside world, on which many scenes are doubled. The split between the „real“ and the projected mirrors his disconnected mind. The live band stand behind the windows, indicating where the real story is being told. It is not by Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s book that little more than sketches the often enigmatic storylines and condenses them into dialogue that alternates between plain and banal and occasionally borders on the cringeworthy.
No, the real story-teller is the music. 17 songs were selected by Bowie himself. Apart from a few well-known tracks, many are more obscure with a heavy dose from recent years but also from more complex album such as 1977’s low. It is through the songs, performed with precision and power by the excellent band and skilled singing from the cast, including its star Michael C Hall (Dexter), that the tales of alienation, despair and restlessness, the existentialist absurdity of a meaningless world, are expressed. Beyond the words, it is the musical atmosphere, the rhythms, the soundscapes that do much of the narrating, from the ambivalence of a free-flowing and almost circular „The Man Who Sold the World“ via the broken fragility of „Absolute Beginners“ and the fake optimism of „Changes“ to the relentless brutality of the songs from 2013’s New Day and right down to the ending: Newton and the girl have just found their peace together in an ambivalent scene that might well be a double suicide. Before the former takes off symbolically in a rocket painted on the floor, they perform a tender acoustic version of „Heroes“ together, a final moment of hope, a hope that knows about its being futile, false and silly. But in this hope lies peace. They might be heroes, just for one day, even if only in their minds. And maybe that is all that there is..