Can a subject be too interesting for drama? That was playwright James Phillips’s fear when he began to think about the life of the late great, fashion iconoclast Alexander McQueen. For though McQueen’s life as the East End lad who became the “bad boy of British fashion” was eventful, he worried about writing a show which delivered salaciousness, but missed the creative spark.
“It was the work I was interested in first of all – approaching him as an artist,” Phillips explains during a break from rehearsals for McQueen, which opens this month at London’s St James Theatre. “I was really clear I didn’t want to write a documentary-style bio-play, because I don’t think bio-plays work. And there’s a tabloid version of this story which I had no interest in at all.” He started work on the play in 2012, long before the V&A’s current McQueen exhibition was announced, and the show’s scheduling at the same time as the blockbuster retrospective is coincidence rather than a cash-in: this spring was the only time director John Caird (the man behind legendary hits Les Miserables and Nicholas Nickleby for the RSC, among many others) was available.
Phillips says his breakthrough, in terms of unlocking McQueen’s genius, came with his decision to turn the play into a fictionalised fairy story. It takes place over a single night, when Alexander (“Lee”) McQueen meets an obsessed fan called Dahlia who has broken into his studio, and the pair go on a whirlwind, magical journey across London, via tailors’ workshops, fashion parties and tower blocks. The inspiration came from one of McQueen’s collections, The Girl who Lived in a Tree, in which he imagined a waif coming down from the ancient elm in his back garden and being transformed into a princess. Just as a fairy tale often centres on a moment of transformational magic, so too does fashion – what can the beautiful dress do to the wearer? In an intriguing bit of star casting, Dahlia is being played by Diana Agron, the perky American best known for Glee; Lee meanwhile, is played by Stephen Wight, a working-class East Ender himself.
Dahlia also functions as McQueen’s alter ego. “She can [represent] what he’s thinking, or his worst fears; she can be his companion on this strange Dantean journey through hell,” explains Caird.
If that sounds a little heavy going, it’s worth pointing out that the fairy-tale format unleashed Phillips’s sensory imagination too – the production uses whirling dancers, video projections and music from McQueen’s own shows, be that Nirvana or Mozart. The costumes, naturally, will be fabulous – although designer David Farley will largely be nodding to McQueen’s designs, rather than attempting to re-create them – although imitations of fan-favourites, such as a golden-feathered coat, and the princessy tulle-skirted creations from the Girl Who Lives in a Tree collection make an appearance.
Nor will the production attempt to re-create any of McQueen’s famously dramatic runway shows. “He had the advantage of surprise! We’re not borrowing any of that imagery, we’re inventing our own,” insists Caird. Staging the play’s swirling dreamscapes is a challenge. “It’s like a Chagall painting – how do you get all these elements coming through the air at you, landing for a few minutes and then disappearing? It’s fun” – he pauses – “and very hard to do!”
Nonetheless, McQueen deals directly with darker aspects of the designer’s life – his troubled relation-ship with early patron Isabella Blow; his depression and suicide; the intense pressure of the fashion cycle on a boundary-pushing perfectionist… Such things arguably need to be tackled, but there is the risk of both mawkishness and morbidity – as well as ethical considerations about how you portray a real, recently deceased figure on stage.
“I do think there’s a responsibility,” agrees Phillips. “Last year, we met Janet and Michael, his brother and sister, and I sent Janet the play. She wrote me this incredible letter about how much she loved it. I think if she’d hated it, we wouldn’t have done it. But she felt it caught something essential about his spirit. It was a risk to turn it into a fairy story, but that released a way of talking about what he was actually like.”
Of course, a large weight of representation falls on the actor playing McQueen. Wight speaks eloquently-on the subject: “I said to the guys that I was not interested in doing an impression – what I thought James had captured brilliantly was an essence of a man. For me, that was the only way I’d want to approach it. Ultimately it’s about expressing his creativity, and how that’s both a blessing and a curse.” These are noble sentiments, but there’s an elephant in the room: Wight does look like McQueen.
Caird and Phillips had spent days watching all the available video footage of McQueen before auditioning Wight, who was in LA at the time, via Skype. “So, while Stephen was saying ‘I don’t want this to be an impersonation’, James and I were watching, thinking ‘it is him… it sounds like him, it looks like him, whether he wants to impersonate him or not is irrelevant … bloody hell, I think we’ve fallen on our feet’.”
So, how interested in the fashion industry were they before doing this show? Not very, is the honest answer. Caird confesses to having been a “recalcitrant philistine about fashion, feeling it was quite smart not to know. But I’m completely hooked now! I find myself leafing through these bloody fashion magazines…”
“Look at the state of me, it’s not that I wanted to write about fashion,” jokes Phillips, dressed in admittedly rather un-directional jeans. “I really wanted to write about a contemporary artist – and it seemed he was similar to the high Romantic poets, incredible spirits making visionary work, but someone who did it five years ago.” In this presenting of McQueen as an artist rather than “just” a fashion designer, the play adds to the Romantic narrative also put forward by the V&A show. “He [made] clothes that ask questions – what actually is a piece of clothing? What can it do to you, inside and out? What can it mean? Can beauty save or destroy you,” asks Phillips.
“It’s Keatsean,” says Caird, before quoting, with finality, “’Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.’”
McQueen runs at St James Theatre, London, from 12 May to 27 June, visit stjamestheatre.co.uk