Left – Melita Jurisic, Jennifer Vuletic, Diana Glenn. Cover – Melita Jurisic, Diana Glenn. Photos – Jeff Busby
Stephen Sewell’s latest play, Arbus & West, directed by Melbourne Theatre Company’s Associate Artistic Director Sarah Goodes, revisits the meeting in 1964 between film star Mae West and controversial photographer Diane Arbus. It is a confrontation with plenty of potential for dramatic conflict: feminists of two generations, the sexual revolution of the 1960s (clearly led by West much earlier than this!) and, above all, the power of the camera to reveal the self behind the persona. In reality, when West saw the results of the shoot, she threatened to file suit against Arbus. In the play, it is clear from the outset that whatever empathy came out of the meeting, West no longer has a skerrick of feeling for the photographer.
With just three characters onstage – Arbus, West, and her assistant Ruby – the action takes place in a faithful replica of West’s apartment, the one used in the 1964 photo shoot, complete with silvery lilac drapes and furnishings, lighted makeup mirrors and copious flowers. Melita Jurisic, as West, prances, glides, or creeps (depending on her ever-changing mood) through her luxurious domain, a robust and ageing woman in a white wig and a diaphanous white lace negligee. Jurisic succeeds in carving a sure path through the twin dangers, either of portraying West as an overbearing and self-obsessed diva, or of turning her into a pathetic figure of fun. This middle way exposes the inner self that West reveals in her unguarded moments. We, as the audience, are like the photographer, or rather the eye of the camera, picking up the nuances of each mood or reaction, so finely portrayed by this actor.
In spite of her reputation as a man-eater, West‘s abiding passion, she once professed, was for the theatre. Jurisic makes this abundantly clear. Her character dominates the action, playing to the crowd – with the confidence, in the relative intimacy of the Fairfax Studio, to bring her voice back to a whisper, or display a new angle to the audience, always moving, changing, disclosing. In this world premiere of Arbus & West, Jurisic has already created the definitive Mae West.
She is ably assisted by her dresser, Ruby (Jennifer Vuletic), a long-term devotee of West’s, ready to soothe her in her arms, but even more ready with a caustic rebuke when she feels the need to rein in her recalcitrant employer. Ruby is the voice of common sense, trying to keep the peace and the status quo when West threatens to unravel. Vuletic’s deft comic timing lifts Sewell’s clever script off the page, and her marvelous and poignant singing is a brief and surprising treat. The play is, above all, funny, until in the later stages it becomes much darker, the mood amplified by the subtle sound design of Clemence Williams.
The character of Arbus (Diana Glenn) is written and played as a typical journalist or photographer, not intentionally exploitative, but passive and receptive, always looking for a new angle, a flaw, an unexpected revelation. She arrives at West’s apartment looking boyish, in professional black, innocent and in awe of the glamorous apartment and its resident star. She acts as a foil for West, who looks on her with distaste and suspicion. This premise works well enough dramatically, putting the spotlight on West, but I was disappointed that Arbus, a complex and ‘difficult’ person by reputation, was not fleshed out into a more suitable sparring partner for the film star. Perhaps a little hesitation in the delivery of her lines, something to suggest there might be some cracks in her own make-up, would have given West greater cause to be suspicious, and made the cat and mouse scenario work both ways.
Glenn’s portrayal of Arbus is nonetheless convincing, and she wears down West, who shows her soft underbelly soon enough. One of the highlights of the performance is when Arbus closes in with her camera, taking shots as West poses, each shot followed quickly by a second flash, capturing West offguard as she drops her pose.
For his latest play, Sewell has taken a significant moment in the world of entertainment and refashioned it into a drama that sparkles and entertains, but also delves beneath the performative self to the selves beneath. One for the actors in the audience. And one for all of us who play out our lives in ignorance of what we are revealing.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
Arbus & West
by Stephen Sewell
Director Sarah Goodes
Venue: Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio | N/A
Dates: 22 February – 30 March 2019
Tickets: $43 – $114
Bookings: 03 8688 0800 | www.mtc.com.au