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Review: Arbus & West (Melbourne Theatre Company)

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“On her 71st birthday Mae West feasted on a rhinestone-studded vanilla layer birthday cake. Nourished by her own legend, she has outlasted every lover and initiated a nation of boys into manhood. She has been called a Queen Bee whose favors are unforgettable, some say she is the greatest female impersonator in the world. Others say that she has nine million dollars in the bank, and that her paternal grandmother possessed three well-formed breasts.”

– Diane Arbus

As curiosities go, the soundtrack playing as we enter for Arbus & West takes some beating. Mae singing When a Man Loves a Woman is one thing, but what follows is that very poppy Beatles number From Me to You (“if there’s anything that you want, if there’s anything I can do”), it does my head in a bit.

We’re in West’s Los Angeles apartment (set and costume design Renée Mulder, lighting design Paul Jackson). The original contained – among other things – a white baby-grand piano, portraits of the inhabitant (at least one, nude) and a perfectly proportioned statue of Mae West herself, also nude (and included in this design). She liked the flat so much, she bought the block.

A staircase (for magnificent entries or falling from) leads down to a luxe boudoir full of flowers, with curtains, cushions and carpets decorated in white and cream: I just like seeing where I’ve been dirty,” says Mae. At the top of the staircase, a door opens out as a backstage dressing room, with mirror and wardrobe and, later, a cupboard for Mae’s ‘ceramics’ collection – plaster cast models of the erections of every man she’s ever had sex with. And yes, like you I’m wondering “How????!”

Stephen Sewell’s play is a mash-up of West one-liners (delivered with deadpan drollery by Melita Jurisic) and his own material, so deftly intertwined it’s impossible to know where she ends and he begins – she probably deserves a writing credit. The piece commences with West’s servant/companion, Ruby (Jennifer Vuletic), reading the news of photographer Diane Arbus’ suicide, and passing the information onto West. Clearly, this is the ‘lens’ through which we are to view the work.

For Sewell, the 1964 interview Mae West gave to Diane Arbus (Diana Glenn) for Star magazine must have seemed irresistible. A confrontation of opposites with West the purveyor of fantasy –  indulgence, excess, opulence, fakery –  to the masses, and Arbus the arbiter of truth, chronicler of the ‘ordinary’ the ‘freak’, the ‘outsider’, the ‘real’.

MTC ARBUS & WEST photo Jeff Busby_1333

But there’s a lot the play either doesn’t mention, or assumes we know:

  • The child of Barvarian immigrants, a prize fighter with a corsetry model (perfect!), West grew up in comparative poverty. Arbus (née Nemerov), on the other hand, came from wealth – her grandfather was the founder of the 5th Avenue fur and clothing emporium, Russek’s – and grew up inured from the ‘real’ world, in the kind of protective bubble only money can provide.

At the time of the Star article, West was 71 years of age. Behind her was a lifetime of performing.

  • As Baby Mae, she first tread the boards from the age of 6, coming up (hem) in the bawdy-glory of burlesque; and carving out an impressive career as performer, sultry purveyor of bon mots for the masses (I find myself imagining a sort of quip-slam between her and Oscar Wilde, The Wilde West Show I guess), sex goddess, astute business woman, playwright for stage and screen, film star (her career as a screen siren commenced in 1933, when she was – hold onto your hats – just shy of 40!!), recording artist … it goes on.
  • She was also a felon. Arrested for corrupting the morals of youth with her play Sex, she was fined and sentenced to 10 days in the slammer. The play had been running for 41 weeks…
  • West was close to her family; Arbus ran from hers.
  • Arbus had daughters; West kept monkeys.
  • In 1939, West was the second highest paid person in America, pipped only by William Randolph Hearst. She bought real estate, cars, clothes, jewels. She bought the massive, gilded, swan-shaped bed of Diamond Jim Brady (dec’d) and used it in her second film. She enjoyed her money.
  • Arbus hated the wealth she was born to: “It was like being a princess in some loathsome movie [in] some kind of Transylvanian obscure Middle European country…”
  • For the Star magazine commission (West sought the article, the play reveals – all publicity being good publicity), Arbus travelled to Los Angeles and spent two days in the apartment. She liked to gain the trust of her subjects and so the first day was spent talking, and looking at the ‘collection’…

Neither the photographs, taken on the second day, nor the photo-essay Mae West Emotion in Motion are shown in this production. Arbus died intestate and reproduction of her work is strictly controlled by her daughter, Doon Arbus, any work requiring the use of Arbus images must be viewed in its entirety before permission is granted. It’s usually not.

West hated the pictures and tried to have them withdrawn. For a dame of the old school – Vaseline on the lens, soft lights, flattering angles – they were anathema. For her, the aim of the photo shoot was to produce images that confirmed, that perpetuated the illusion she’d spent a lifetime perfecting. Nowadays, she’d have negotiated print approval. She’d have her own carefully curated Facebook page.

Arbus, however, was devoted to stripping away falsehood; she was interested, as she says in the play, in the flaw (you’ve gotta wonder why the editor of Star chose Arbus for the gig at all). Moreover, while Arbus’ urge to reveal ‘truth’, may seem laudable, it’s her subjects (mostly unnamed) who are revealed; she herself remains hidden.

You can understand why West was pissy.

She was a construct, true, but so what? She controlled the image.

I’ve looked at a couple of the photographs in question, online; we need to see them, if we’re to understand West’s ire as anything more than vanity.

Mae West on bed (which is in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia), makes it look as though her nipples have gone walking in two different directions. Another image, sees her seated in a boudoir armchair in negligee and lace. In the harsh light of day (Arbus used natural daylight, with many of the images backlit), West is revealed. At best she looks old – older than her years – at worst she looks pitiable. Delusional. You feel sorry for her.

And Mae West didn’t want your pity.

Without the images that now define her, the images West’s lawyer called “cruel” and “unflattering”, Arbus becomes, in this play, little more than a cypher, her suicide a catalyst to begin the play.

You end up with one character generating (hilarious) one liners and the other eliciting them:

“The submissive or the dominant,” West ponders of her footwear for approaching the interview. The dominant, Mae, the dominant!

Reading about West, about Arbus, I’ve found myself wondering if there wasn’t an element of judgement in the resultant work. Not just of West herself, but of the life she’d built. An article on Arbus in the New York Times describes the home she grew up in as having “public rooms…filled with reproduction French furniture in slipcovers…as in their ritzy clothing store, everything was for show.” 

Arbus loathed it.

This is still a show worth seeing, not least for the strong performances of the all-female cast. (And a big shout out to those male writers now making shows with furniture-chewing roles for women.)

I’ve looked at a couple of the photographs in question, online; we need to see them, if we’re to understand West’s ire as anything more than vanity.

With Arbus seeming superfluous to requirements (despite a clear performance from Glenn), Vuletic as Ruby (for true authenticity, she should probably be black, as most of Mae’s companion-maids were) is terrific; acerbic, brisk, and more than capable of acting the cypher if it came to that.

For a while Melita Jurisic seems as though she’ll be imprisoned by the weight of impersonation, literally! She’s so small, and Mae was statuesque! Though not so much. Mae West was 4-foot-11 in her stockinged feet, maybe three inches taller; her bust we leave to the Ages.

Jurisic sings a pretty sturdy version of A Guy What Takes His Time (that might do better headlining the show), and has the Mae West delivery to a tee: her timing is perfection!

“I love that circumcised look; you kind of get it all at once.” How many bon mots can one mouth hold, I wonder.

There’s a remarkable sequence in the piece where West, a believer in mediums and all manner of supernatural happenings, recounts the story of a little girl she knew, a childhood friend: she’s becoming convinced that the child is Arbus. She describes, in precise detail, the day the girl had her first period and came to ‘womanhood’ – the day she was decapitated by her father.

“He sawed her head off,” says Mae. Then a long, long pause. “He was a carpenter,” she observes flatly.

It could be funny. But the lines are met with utter silence. It’s brutal, macabre, chilling.

The writing here is eerie and the delivery a brilliant piece of spell-binding story-weaving.

I have no idea if it’s true or apocryphal. But if it’s not true, it should be.

I could wish there was more of this unexpected Mae West in the show.

Later, pausing for a moment in the natural light-that-lingers after Arbus’ departure, after engaging in a (rare?) bout of self-reflection: has the image she’s so determinedly built been armour rather than amour? The Siren Survivor moves to the window and gazes out. She turns her back to us, pulls the wig from her head and stands, stripped of artifice. She raises her arms and wrenches the curtains closed.

Arbus West 2

It’s very dramatic. And if we were looking at a beat-out husk of womanhood, as the by-then 77-year-old Mae West (who lived to the age of 87) may have been, it’d be a powerful revelation, as powerful as an Arbus original. But we’re looking at Melita Jurisic, and she may be getting older, but she’s strong, she’s fit, she’s fabulous – it’s almost an anti-climax actually.

I think, having found the ‘conceit’, the framing for the piece, Sewell assumed the gals would say what he wanted them to say. That they’d make a disturbing statement about constructed selves or ageing, about fulfilment or doubt.

But they haven’t really co-operated.

I think that West got away from him.

I think Arbus eluded him.

I think that the original idea is a good one, and that there’s a really fascinating play nearly there. But not quite.

They say Mae West moved with a slow sexy sashay.

I say, anyone who can stay upright in these shoes – they added over nine inches to her height – deserves respect!


Arbus & West plays at Arts Centre Melbourne until March 30.

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