Tapped by theatre titan Andrew Lloyd Webber to adorn the newly restored West End venue with canvases that capture Shakespeare scenes, the Russian-born “millennial with an Old Master’s hand” whips up a series of spellbinding paintings that mine the human psyche’s innermost depths.
The first musical that Andrew Lloyd Webber ever saw was My Fair Lady at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London’s Covent Garden, in 1956, when he was seven years old. He returned for The Tempest one year later and remembers the principal actor declaring that “Shakespeare will never be heard in this theatre again; it will be lost to musicals.” It was a daring proclamation—the theatre carries an inextricable link to the English playwright’s history as not only London’s oldest such venue, but the epicenter of a Shakespearean revival that unfolded in the 18th century.
Lloyd Webber purchased the venue 44 years later and is now spearheading an $82 million renovation that will restore the landmark back to its original glory. As a cheeky homage to the actor’s declaration, the composer and titan of West End theatre thought it fitting to permanently imbue Drury Lane with an unmissable Shakespearean presence offered by centrally displayed paintings that depict the dramatist’s most recognizable scenes.
A connoisseur of pre-Raphaelite art, Lloyd Webber was determined to scout an on-the-rise creative talent to paint a series of contemporary canvases that reflected Drury Lane’s role at the cultural heart of Covent Garden. Specifically, he wanted a living figurative painter whose work marries historical techniques with a distinctly contemporary vision, pushing beyond the emotional and aesthetic landscapes of the paintings he often collects. So when he first met Maria Kreyn, a Russian-born artist described as a “millennial with an Old Master’s hand,” the two immediately saw eye to eye.
To the untrained eye, Maria Kreyn’s paintings may look like they were created centuries ago. Rigorously trained in drawing, Kreyn, 35, truly acquired her artistic touch while living and working alongside a master painter in Norway after departing the University of Chicago, where she felt creatively stifled studying mathematics and philosophy. She emerged from that stint with newfound perspective and now creates highly realist oil paintings that delve into human relationships and capture intimate moments of passion and isolation with a distinctly modern sensibility. “I’m reframing old techniques to tell a contemporary human story,” she says, “and investigating a particular set of human emotions, attempting to give them a voice they didn’t necessarily have in the history of painting.”
Lloyd Webber recalls being most moved by the final canvas that Kreyn presented during their meeting—a particularly androgynous self-portrait that he describes as a “contemporary Ophelia.” At that moment, he knew that Shakespeare would be the perfect theme for the artwork adorning the legendary venue’s walls, and challenged Kreyn to “make this work dangerous and apocalyptic, with your soul on the line.”
Of course, when Lloyd Webber commissioned Kreyn, in summer 2019, neither anticipated the following year’s pandemic quarantine or racial uprising. Lockdown only added an uncanny parallel to her assignment—Shakespeare wrote both King Lear and Macbeth while in quarantine during the bubonic plague. She also found jarring intrigue in the similarities between the plays’ subject matter and the civil unrest and revolutionary action that transpired during the commission. “Culturally, we equate Shakespeare’s oeuvre with a deep dive into the human psyche,” she says. “These plays confront us with the depth and darkness of crumbling empire, the pestilence of corrupt power, and the dilemma of what may come to fill the power vacuum.” There was no need to paint these as period pieces, she soon realized. This version of Shakespeare felt eerily current.
Kreyn picked eight plays—King Lear, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, and The Tempest—and conducted intensive academic research for each piece. She consulted the leading Shakespeare scholar Trevor Nunn, who is perhaps the only living person to have directed professional productions for all 39 Shakespeare plays. None of the eight paintings depict any particular moment within the narrative arc of their namesakes, but rather encapsulate the “emotional thrust of the play” as Kreyn sees it. “The plays are as much a study into complex individuality and humor as they are a study into madness—turbulent, dark, redemptive, absurd, comedic, ecstatic,” Kreyn says, “and always beautiful.”
What brings out these qualities in Kreyn’s paintings, besides her ability to illustrate innermost human emotions with razor-sharp detail, is the theatre’s architecture and newly renovated Regency-style interiors. A history-laden Greek Revival building, Drury Lane abounds with monumental wall spaces that “call for a powerful statement to go with,” Lloyd Webber notes. They’re the result his nearly three-year restoration, which saw architects Steve Tompkins and Graham Haworth renovate the venue’s cantilevered Wyatt staircases that were lost nearly 100 years ago. It reopened this past week with Disney’s Frozen, which transferred from Broadway.
Lloyd Webber’s favorite part? Kreyn’s paintings can be appreciated in different ways by viewers of all walks, whether they lean toward lighthearted musicals or prefer sophisticated dramas. “There’s no point in having works that are purely decorative,” he says. “Rather than having fusty old pictures, we wanted to go for something that could interest and challenge any audience. We might be doing something that would be sitting in a theater for the next 300 years.”