A brilliant art forger bares his soul in Tarragon Theatre’s The Bakelite Masterpiece.
Johannes Vermeer may have painted his masterpieces using a camera obscura and other optical devices—a theory tested in the Penn and Teller documentary Tim’s Vermeer—but we’re 100 per cent certain he didn’t use Bakelite. That synthetic plastic wasn’t developed until 1907, so it wouldn’t have been kicking around the studio of the Dutch master, who died in 1675. It was, however, the secret “aging” ingredient employed by Han van Meegeren, the brilliant art forger whose fake Vermeers fooled the experts for years—until he revealed the truth while in prison in 1945 as a Nazi collaborator. The Bakelite Masterpiece, a fascinating but flawed new play premiering at Tarragon Theatre, is a fictionalized account of Van Meegeren’s last days, in which he is forced to prove his forgeries to save his neck from the hangman’s noose.
Kate Cayley’s drama is set in Van Meegeren’s Amsterdam prison cell, where the painter (played with brio by Geordie Johnson) is confronted by a Dutch officer, Captain Geert Piller (Irene Poole). Geert wants Han to sign a confession stating that he sold a newly discovered Vermeer, Christ and the Adulterous Woman, to Nazi commander Hermann Göring during the war. Han, however, insists he painted the picture himself and ought to be considered a hero, since his hoax made the Nazis look like fools. Geert, an art historian in civilian life who was also taken in by the picture, isn’t convinced. But she agrees to let Han prove his claim, allowing him to paint another faux Vermeer, with her as his model.
Cayley paints a compelling portrait herself in her picture of Van Meegeren as an aging, decaying, but still defiantly unrepentant mischief-maker. An artist whose own work was dismissed by the critics, he turned to making counterfeit masterpieces both to capture their attention and to mock their judgment. He gleefully likens himself to the upstart angel Lucifer, who was cast out of paradise after rebelling against God. As portrayed by Johnson, he’s a lanky, demonic-looking figure, with a Mephistophelean beard and a devilish gleam in his eye. Although a sickly addict who consumes morphine pills like Tic Tacs, washing them down with swigs of gin, he still describes with relish how he created his plastic masterpiece—a cunning process that included repurposing a 17th-century canvas and baking the finished painting in an oven.
The play isn’t just concerned with frustrated artists and the art of forgery, however. Cayley also uses the postwar punishment of collaborators and the subject of Van Meegeren’s Vermeer—the Gospel story of Jesus defending an adulteress from stoning—to introduce themes of shame and blame. What she’s aiming at isn’t clear, however, and the role of Geert is also murky. Unlike the riveting Han, her character is underwritten and enigmatic, and Poole plays her in a dour, low-key style.
Director Richard Rose seems to have been less concerned with clarifying the Han-Geert relationship than with painting his own beautiful picture on the stage of Tarragon’s Extraspace. His design team of Charlotte Dean (set and costumes) and André du Toit (lighting) turn Han’s prison cell into a gorgeous canvas of golden light and brown shadows, with the artist’s paints and paraphernalia strewn picturesquely in the foreground. In certain scenes, Rose even has his two actors arranged in tableaux. You find yourself studying the production as if it were a still life. Never mind Tim—this is Richard’s Vermeer.
Cayley, meanwhile, is the kind of literary playwright whose prose is lovely to listen to, but also patently artificial. Her style of writing works better for monologues than for the scenes in which Han and Geert are supposed to interact with some degree of naturalism. Stilted dialogue was also a problem with her last Tarragon play, 2011’s After Akhmatova, a stolid drama about the persecuted Russian poet.
The Bakelite Masterpiece is a better work. It impresses you as you watch it, taking you in with its poetic writing, the captivating design, and Johnson’s seductive performance. But you leave the theatre feeling that Cayley has presented a lot of interesting themes and ideas without successfully exploring them. It’s the theatrical equivalent of a Van Meegeren forgery: a synthetic play that fools you into thinking it’s something greater than it really is.