Diane Arbus and Mae West are two 20th century feminists that many people today would be unaware of, beyond Looney Tunes parodies or a strong understanding of photographic art history. But these two extraordinary women are well and truly worthy of a greater 21st century renown.
Mae West was not only a great comic actress, singer and writer, but a sex symbol in total control of her own sexuality and portrayal. In a career that spanned almost seventy years she spent the first twenty wowing Broadway audiences with her sexy, self-penned shows before Hollywood finally called in 1932 and she shot a series of pictures all of which she wrote, co-wrote or to which she added her own dialogue. What West asked for she got, and when the censors tried to quieten her audacious voice, she simply used the attention for publicity. Then when her movie career ended, she returned to writing plays and books, and continued to perform on stage and television while recording numerous albums. Right until her death in 1980, aged 87, Mae West was a formidable character who kept strong control of her image.
In 1964, while attempting to keep herself in the spotlight, she arranged for a publicity shoot in her California home with a photojournalist she assumed would be a man. Instead, the avant-garde photographer Diane Arbus arrived at her home and the women famously clashed due to their very different approaches to artistic expression. For while Arbus worked commercially for the likes of Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar and The Sunday Times Magazine, her passion was for photographing outsiders, those who existed on the margins of society. Strippers and nudists, dwarves and carnival performers, drag queens and bi-racial couples where amongst her subjects that she liked to call ‘aristocrats’. She once said, “I work from awkwardness. By that, I mean I don’t like to arrange things. If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.” So how did a woman who was always in control of her image, like West, cope with being photographed by a woman who liked things to be awkward and unarranged? Playwright Stephen Sewell hypothesises the answer in this story.
Beginning with West learning of Arbus’ death in 1971, the story flashes back to their meeting, initial clash and the subsequent circumstances that lead to what could be argued is the most truthful photographic portrait ever taken of West. Sewell has developed a smart conceit to explain why and how West allowed the shoot to go ahead while feeling so unhappy with the ultimate result. What happens in between is speculation, and often quite fanciful, but entertaining and enlightening nonetheless. The use of a trauma from West’s childhood to provide her reason for giving Arbus more time to do her work, and provide impetus to the story beyond the interval does feel shoehorned in though, however fascinating it may be.
Playing the titular characters are Melita Jurisic as West and Diana Glenn as Arbus, accompanied by Jennifer Vuletic as Ruby, Mae West’s dresser and personal assistant. Playing real life characters can always be difficult, when the need for ‘impersonation’ is required, and here Jurisic gets the rough end of the stick. Mae West’s wonderfully sassy purr is no small feat to pull off, but Jurisic does it admirably, regularly embodying the woman’s screen persona with utter precision, especially when delivering her famous one-liners. However keeping this up is a harder task and at times, when in more natural conversation, Jurisic’s accent stops sounding like a native New Yorker, and falls into something nudging Eastern European. Perhaps allowing the husky growl to drop in these moments would eliminate the need to keep up West’s on-screen pretense so highly throughout. Accent aside, Jurisic’s emotional development and portrayal of the character is commanding while her comic delivery is also spot on. Like a Russian doll, it’s another portrait of the woman that strips away her façade.
Arbus is of course less well known, meaning Glenn has the room to find her own version of the artist. What we are shown is a woman with astounding determination to expose the hidden and the eccentric through her art with utter confidence and control. It’s a strong, if somewhat understated performance in the shadow of an attention grabbing Hollywood star. Vuletic is fantastic as Mae West’s confidante Ruby, a woman stuck between the positions of best friend and employee. Both desperate to save Mae from being manipulated and shown in a bad light, while also frustrated by her self-absorbed lack of respect.
Costumes by Renee Mulder are beautifully rendered, meeting the visual evidence we have of both women. Mulder’s set is a less successful use of the space available often squashing the story onto a small landing while leaving much of the rest of the stage for simpler scenes. Lighting by Paul Jackson is nicely emotive, while Clemence Williams’ sound and compositions add sweetly to the atmosphere of recollection.
Sarah Goodes has directed a production that allows each of the characters to shine and gives Sewell’s story the room to build on emotions while not outstaying its welcome, but the question remains if this story truly warrants its two acts. Certainly the play creates desire to know more about these two great women, but the question of why the story of this particular meeting exists still remains.