David Bowie’s final work, the musical Lazarus at Kings Cross Theatre, London is an interesting and contrasting piece of live performance. The play continues Bowie’s character Thomas Jerome Newton (played by Michael C. Hall) from the 1976 film The Man Who Fell To Earth. The story of an alien who leaves his own planet due to draught and travels to Earth in search of water, where he becomes addicted to the vices of the modern world, cheap gin and television. The play is written by Bowie and Enda Walsh and directed by Ivo Van Hove with excellent stage design by Jan Versweyveld.
Lazarus is set entirely in Newton’s apartment, where we find him isolated, living on junk food (Twinkies and Lucky Charms). He is unable to die and unable to go home, he lives in despair of his lost love Mary-Lou. He is regularly visited by his assistant Elly (played by Amy Lennox) who becomes infatuated with him. The play shows not only the characters interactions with him, we get glimpses into each characters lives. The murderous Valentine, (Michael Esper) whose purpose is to show the ficklety and fragility of life, in a world where Newton cannot die. His only hope arrives when he meets a young girl (Sophia Anne Caruso), only known as Girl for the majority of the show. Throughout, it is unclear whether she exists in reality or is just a figment of his alcohol addled mind. She decides to build a rocket, for him to travel back home.
The play begins about 15 minutes before it actually does. As the audience arrives, a confused Newton stumbles onto stage, paces and eventually lying down and falling asleep before abruptly being awoken by the sound sound of the television when the play officially starts. The television is a focal point on the stage, where the minimalist setting only also features a bed and a fridge. The TV is a large upturned rectangle and acts in many ways as a portal, showing a fragmented reality taking place outside of his apartment. The set also comprises of two large windows, which show the live band.
The play is an intimate piece of theatre, if you are lucky to sit close enough, you become part of Newtons apartment, with characters singing directly at members of the audience, in particular “Oh, what have you done?” from the song Love Is Lost. It is live theatre in its most surreal and uncompromising, with items from the fridge and Lucky Charms being launched across the stage and characters endlessly drinking prop gin. Newton is on the stage throughout and experiences much of it as an observer, even breaking into spontaneous applause after the song Valentines Day. The audience however, do not applause after each song instead forming an eerie silence as the play continues without pause. This means that the scene is never broken, the characters know we are there but choose not to acknowledge us.
Lazarus is best described as an ‘off-broadway play with music’, it is certainly not Let’s Dance – The Musical. All the song choices are mostly deeper cuts from Bowie’s extensive catalogue, such as It’s No Game, This Is Not America and Always Crashing In The Same Car, this keeps it fresh for the audience. There is also the well-known songs such as Life On Mars?, “Heroes”, Changes and The Man Who Sold The World. It deliberately avoids obvious choices such as Starman or Loving The Alien. The play also features four new songs, Lazarus which features on Blackstar, No Plan sung by Girl, the storming Killing A Little Time which sees a projection of Newton pull down the curtains around the stage, once again playing with reality and When I Met You. The play does not begin with music right away, there is an introduction to set the scene, where Newton is visited and some of his back-story is discussed. The first song performed is Lazarus, which is almost directly sung to the audience, for It’s No Game the entire stage is projected with Japanese design and a Geisha joins him on stage, chasing him around in a frantic sequence of action influenced by Kabuki theatre.
The post-hommus video for No Plan can be seen here.
The play is very self-destructive, from the very beginning Newton is banging on the glass in front of the band leaving hand marks all over it, showing his frustration at being unable to leave and representing isolation. Later, the apartment goes completely dark and is filled with grey balloons, which are all popped by the characters of the Teenagers. The finale of the play, tries to answer many of the questions by revealing the identity of Girl but otherwise raises more questions than answers. The floor becomes flooded with prop milk, which is often associated with Bowie’s mid-70s milk and cocaine diet. For “Heroes” Newton and Girl glide through the milk and spread it around the floor. By the end of the show the stage is a sea of milk, popped balloons and Lucky Charms.
The character of Lazarus can be seen as Bowie’s final guise. It is easy to see the connections between Bowie’s own life and the play. In this respect the play can take on two meanings both of the character Thomas Jerome Newton and Bowie’s last years. Lines such as “Look up here, I’m in heaven” is Bowie’s farewell and Newton’s introduction. “By the time I got to New York, I was living like a king”, Bowie lived in a reclusive life in New York for many years, in a similar way to Newton in his apartment. Death is a key theme in Lazarus and through his own ill health connections can be made through lyrics such as “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen” and in Killing A Little Time “I lay in bed, the monster fed, the body bled, I turned and said “I get some of you all the time, All of you some other time”. This also has meaning for Newton by referencing his apartment as “a lover’s grave”. The play and Blackstar album can be seen as Bowie playing with truth and fiction.
Bowie’s emotive final video for the song Lazarus can be seen below.
Bowie always wanted to create a musical and in many ways Lazarus was his last chance. From the 1968 Anthony Newley inspired ‘Ernie Johnson’ musical idea, to his thwarted adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 and uncompleted Diamond Dogs film, also the theatrical representations of Ziggy Stardust and on the Glass Spider tour. The idea of a loss of civilisation and chaos have always appealed to Bowie and can be seen and heard in his representation of ‘Hunger City’ and ‘Halloween Jack’ which are featured in the Diamond Dogs tour and album. In Lazarus, the Teenagers represent this. They show an ungoverned breakdown in society and are also a representation of the future. These ideas can be associated with the film ‘A Clockwork Orange’ which had a large influence on Bowie’s music and imagery. Songs such as ‘All The Young Dudes’ show progression and point to the future, both led and represented by teenagers.
The excellent cast brings the play to life, in particular Amy Lennox as Elly and Sophia Anne Caruso as Girl. Whilst it is clear that Michael C. Hall is not playing Bowie as Newton, instead playing his own variation of the character, he is still convincing in the role. Lazarus is an exploration through the mind of Thomas Jerome Newton, his struggle with life and interactions in his apartment. The play originally premiered in New York Theatre Workshop before opening in London in 2016.
Lazarus ran from 8th November 2016 – 22nd January 2017