Only a few years ago, scribe Stephen Sewell couldn’t get a theater gig in Australia. The mainstage companies were not taking his calls, he’d outgrown the fringe scene and his next step wasn’t immediately apparent. He dabbled in screenwriting, most notably with “The Boys,” and dreamed up the idea of exploring the lives of painters onstage. So followed “The Secret Death of Salvador Dali,” produced most recently by Griffin Theater Company in 2004, and now, “Three Furies, Scenes From the Life of Francis Bacon” a much bigger production backed by three leading Oz arts festivals and harnessing the talents of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” helmer Jim Sharman.
Compared with the super-conservative plays finding favor on Australia’s mainstages this year, “Three Furies” occupies another realm, intentionally so. It is a festival piece — bold, explicit and challenging — and as such should enjoy a fruitful life.
It is a terrifically textured work. Sharman visually references Bacon’s paintings, with the three-doored set conjuring any number of his triptychs. The drama centers on Bacon and his lover and model from 1964-71, the handsome, uneducated petty criminal George Dyer, the inspiration for much of the painter’s work during that period.
Simon Burke and Socratis Otto work well opposite each other. Burke is the short-tempered artist forced to repeatedly quash the whining demands of Otto’s rough, dim-witted model, whose ambitions have grown to dwarf his talent.
Dyer begins to become annoyed that Bacon doesn’t include him in all aspects of his life, such as inviting him to the glamorous opening nights of his exhibitions. He also comes to believe Bacon’s painting of him are him; the artist is forced to argue, in ever plainer terms, that it is his genius on the canvas and Dyer should remember he is but a piece of meat, albeit a pretty one.
Sewell constructs a wonderfully complex Bacon, a man predisposed to haughtiness and exasperated coolness, but not cruel. He is the product of an unstable childhood shuttling between Ireland and England, with a disciplinarian father inclined to horse-whip his offspring. That discipline finds its way into a predilection for sadomasochism in later life.
A chanteuse as Greek chorus, Tisiphone (Paula Arundell) completes the trinity, many of her lines sung in a raspy, Marianne Faithfull-with-less-range style.
The decision to forgo an intermission was wise. The spell of “Three Furies,” once cast, would suffer from being broken.