Hailed during his lifetime as the greatest British figurative painter of the 20th century, Francis Bacon was also a celebrated drinker, gambler and nihilist who, in his own words, lived his life “between the gutter and the Ritz”. On the days when he wasn’t sipping champagne in a Savile Row suit, Bacon was cruising the streets in women’s tights and a bovver-boy jacket, picking up rough trade. But these are mere eccentricities compared to the way that he treated his loved ones, which was with appalling cruelty. In between bouts of alcoholism, sado-masochism and painting chunks of raw meat, Bacon found time to drive his lover, George Dyer, to suicide. Dyer, who was also Bacon’s muse, picked his moment carefully: he took his life in Paris in 1971, on the eve of one of the most important retrospectives of Bacon’s career. A desperate act of vengeance? Dyer was too far gone to write a suicide note.
Bacon died peacefully in 1992, but already, seen through the eyes of the 21st century, he seems like one of the last great art monsters of his age.
The mythologising is well under way: after multiple biographies and an excellent British film, Love Is the Devil, here comes the stage play – Three Furies: Scenes from the Life of Francis Bacon, all the way from Australia, and appearing in the AK05 festival.
Naturally, Three Furies deals explicitly with the most sordid aspects of the Bacon biography (Dyer’s decline and naked suicide) and, just like the artist’s finest paintings, it is often horrific to behold. But the fun does not stop there. Director Jim Sharman cut his teeth on three of the most lurid musicals of all time – Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar and The Rocky Horror Show – and you need to be warned that he has been allowed a heavy hand with this one. The Sydney Morning Herald described Three Furies as an “intoxicating cabaret”, and it wasn’t because they got drunk in the interval.
“Theatre doesn’t have to be a bunch of people sitting around having cups of tea and talking about their failed marriages,” says playwright Stephen Sewell, at home in his Bondi Beach apartment. “It’s very exciting to have songs, and music-hall elements, and drama and satire, a whole different bunch of concerns, slammed together in a way that actually makes quite a lot of sense.”
As well as penning a mouthful of award-winning plays – The Blind Giant Is Dancing, The Secret Death of Salvador Dali and Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America – Sewell has enjoyed success as a screenwriter, most notably with The Boys. More films are in development, and this time Sewell intends to direct. One of these projects, called Sisters – “sort of like The Boys, only it’s girls” – could end up being made in New Zealand. Sewell was here recently, scouting our lighthouse locations. “The sisters live in a lighthouse. Their father is the lighthouse keeper.”
Beyond the location, anything goes. After pulling apart the conventions of theatre, Sewell intends to do the same with film, like the Lars von Trier of Down Under. He’s sick and tired of the formulaic Hollywood approach, which ends up spreading worldwide via formulaic screenwriting books and courses. “Over the last 10 years, [in Australia], we’ve spent about a billion dollars on movies that are all more or less boring as bat shit and you’d think at least for a billion dollars, you’d come up with a few interesting ideas. But no.
“There are film-makers like [Charlie] Kaufman and David Lynch who are trying to shake it all up and get rid of the rules. Basically, that’s the issue: we have to get rid of the rules.”
Seen this way, Bacon comes to seem like a natural fit: Bacon did not care for rules, either. “Bacon represented the end of one era in British painting and the door opening to what became Brit Art.” After Bacon, British art knew what it was, and it was characterised by a “spiritual toughness”, Sewell says. “That was the artistic landscape that Bacon left.”
Zeroing in on the heart of Bacon’s character, Sewell found a personal life that was trampled on by ambition and a burning need to innovate at all costs. This is what made him monstrous and cruel. “I found myself really attracted to that state and, as a writer, as a person involved in the arts, that ruthlessness and exploitativeness are something I see in myself. The tension about destroying the things that you love, in order to find the universal truths or art within them, is a very familiar place.” A place of self-loathing. “I’ve got two failed marriages behind me,” says Sewell. “A terrible personal history. But I guess that’s just something ambitious people struggle with. It isn’t even artists. It’s anyone who wants something.”
THREE FURIES, AKO5, March 2-5.