The Bakelite Masterpiece, making its world debut at Tarragon Theatre, opens with a stunning monologue from Dutch painter Han van Meegeren, played by Geordie Johnson. His soliloquy sets the stage for what quickly becomes a fantastic and haunting story. At the end of World War II, van Meegeren is accused by Holland’s government of selling a stolen Vermeer painting to the Nazis. However, van Meegeren is adamant that the painting is not a Vermeer. Rather, it is a perfect forgery – made by himself. It is a claim he attempts to convince Art Historian Geert Piller (Irene Poole) of. The play mixes history, art, religion, and philosophy in a beautifully tragic combination.
From the moment he appears onstage at the beginning of the play, Johnson is an absolute force in every scene. While Poole is no slouch herself, Johnson’s van Meegeren is a complex, troubled, and brilliant character. His unwavering belief that he created a Vermeer forgery is tested by Poole’s own unflappable demeanour, as well as her rejection of his alibi. This adversarial confrontation at the heart of The Bakelite Masterpiece extends beyond artist and art historian to encompass several dueling conflicts. It extends to two different versions of Holland, Vermeer’s interpretations (found in the subjects that he painted), and post-war Holland. It extends to religion, with God and Lucifer’s hell at either end of what van Meegeren considers the greatest forgery of all time.
The story’s serious tones are complimented by a simple, yet well-conceived set. Excellent lighting and set design by André du Toit and Charlotte Dean create a setting that feels remarkably like the canvas of a painting with the actors as the subjects.
Overall, the mystery of the Vermeer painting becomes secondary to the chain reaction that it causes and the effect that it has on the two characters. Whether or not van Meegeren is telling the truth about the painting is largely irrelevant. What is relevant is the meaning behind the painting, real or forged. This ultimate question may or may not be answered, but the play poses it nonetheless.
The Bakelite Masterpiece, written by Kate Cayley and directed by Richard Rose, runs until November 30th at Tarragon Theatre. Tickets are $55 and $29 for students. For more information, visit http://tarragontheatre.com/show/the-bakelite-masterpiece/.