When David Bowie first met with producer Robert Fox to discuss Lazarus back in 2013 you have to now wonder if he was seriously contemplating his own mortality. The clue, of course, is in the title, and that of his extraordinary last album Blackstar. In what is effectively a sequel to the Walter Tevis novel The Man Who Fell to Earth – memorably filmed by Nicolas Roeg with Bowie as the marooned alien Thomas Newton – Lazarus is awash with intimations of death, of decay, of a world on the brink of extinction. Enda Walsh’s book is full of longing – for love, for peace, for release from earthly ties, while songs drawn from Bowie’s iconic catalogue, an astonishing legacy spanning four decades, are reimagined in a new context whilst somehow retaining the potency they once exerted during the course of a life richly lived. No juke-box musical, this.
But here’s the thing. This entire creation – arriving now from New York in an appropriately custom-made theatre at King’s Cross – is so infused with the spirit, the quirkiness, the capriciousness of Bowie (Walsh could not be more in tune with all of this) that mere mortals who simply “don’t get him” should probably steer clear. Lazarus will undoubtedly be regarded by some as pretentious on an industrial scale – and in some respects it is – but only if you have never bought in to the Bowie ethos. If, on the other hand, you are among the millions who have, then there is a truth about it that is strangely moving. The morning after seeing it I am contemplating how strongly Bowie himself was “in the room” last night. For sure there were moments, as there often were with Bowie, where I felt myself sinking beneath the weight of Walsh’s wordy symbolism, but others where a child-like honesty cleared the air.
Fox has assembled the perfect team to realise what was after all Bowie’s own vision for the piece. I’ve mentioned Walsh whose book evolved it seems from four hand-written pages handed to him by Bowie at their first meeting. But who better to direct it than Ivo van Hove whose extraordinary eye and ear has brought a new kind of surrealism to the stage (witness his View from the Bridge at the Young Vic and West End); and designer Jan Versweyveld whose jaw-dropping use of projections in Lazarus kind of demanded a new theatre – a new canvas, if you like – on which to spray his visuals.
The East Village New York apartment in which Thomas Newton (the amazing Michael C Hall) has now been trapped for decades (living on gin and Twinkie bars), having been used and sapped and discarded by big business on this his never-ending earthly sojourn, looks out through plate glass not on to the world beyond but into a studio where Tom Cawley’s nine-piece band essentially recreate the Bowie sound. But they can be relocated in an instant to a nightclub or a highway by Versweyveld’s projections just as other characters – real or imagined by Newton – are spirited from behind their images on a giant TV screen.
Among them is the ironically named Valentine (excellent Michael Esper), a knife-wielding maniac who quite literally kills love and hope and threatens Newton’s release; and a Girl (the intriguing Sophia Anne Caruso) who is Newton’s only way to the stars and the ultimate freedom he so craves. Her child-like rendition of “Life on Mars” is extraordinarily touching as she marks out on the stage the naive outline of the rocket that he hopes will take him there. This is the being that will ultimately shed not her life-blood but the milk of human kindness. You’ll need to see the show to understand that.
The hugely charismatic Michael C Hall (TV’s Dexter) is on stage before and during the entire 110 minutes duration. His commitment is total, his presence other-worldly and riveting. He even sounds like Bowie in the numbers entrusted to him; three of them were written especially for the show.
So definitely one for Bowie fans not Bowie sceptics (they will continue to miss out). In a copy of the novel The Man Who Fell to Earth that he gifted to the producer of Lazarus he wrote: “I’m not a human being at all.” (Thomas Jerome Newton) “Ssshh!!” (David Bowie).