“I am beautiful, and I am worthy of your regard.” This is the final line in Maude Davey’s celebrated My Life in the Nude. Returning for an encore season after its initial run last year, Davey has crafted a wonderful one-woman show that is touching, intelligent and funny.
The show itself is a strange cocktail of song, dance, performance art and monologue. Davey performs some of her well-known and loved acts, sharing the stories behind them and commenting on their significance within her career and broader themes of beauty, sexuality and self-expression.
My Life in the Nude is, at its core, a meditation on bodies: What is a body? What is nudity? What does it mean? How does age change a body’s meaning? What happens when your asset – your naked body – decreases in value as you age? Davey asks and answers all these questions (and plenty more!) with grace and intelligence.
Davey performs her famous ‘My Cunt’ routine, and the ‘secret strawberry’ routine which she performed at a competition in 1991 and was the act to kick off her exploration of nudity. She sings multiple numbers, which are well performed but often lacking the emotional complexities that make her monologues and other pieces so engrossing. She tells of her experiences teaching disabled women burlesque; an art form which, for them, offered a rare chance to feel beautiful and worthy of people’s attention. Davey then leaves stage and re-appears in a gorilla costume and, in an oddly moving (and funny) dance/strip tease, expertly explores the ideas of bodies, beauty and perception of beauty that she discussed moments earlier.
She interacts beautifully from the audience, selecting ‘other performers’ to read out their thoughts on what it means to perform publicly in the nude. Male nudity is certainly not neglected; one of the audience members is brought onstage to read a letter from one of Davey’s friends who has chosen to give up performing nude: “Nudity was an act of love that was not reciprocated,” he writes. The simplicity and spontaneity of the reading made for a truly touching moment of theatre.
The most gut-wrenching moments of the show, though, came in the last ten minutes. A Butoh-style silent performance reminiscent of the Grizabella, the ageing Glamour Cat from the musical Cats, confronts the audience with a sad, frail old woman in a fur coat, who struggles to get onstage and must ask for help from an audience member. Davey shrugs off the coat, baring her naked body once more, and lies on the floor, to be lifted up and suspended by one hand clutching a piece of fabric from the ceiling. This image – an incredibly still, naked body, beautifully lit with bluish-gray light casting shadows over Davey’s skin – is breathtaking, and provides the perfect quiet opportunity for the audience to reflect on all Davey explores throughout the show. In her final monologue, Davey explains that as she approaches her 50th birthday she has begun to feel less comfortable with performing in the nude. She explains the ways in which her ageing body complicates her art – it means something different than it once did, and therefore can no longer used to explore the same ideas.
Davey has been directed by her sister Anni Davey, who has shaped the show brilliantly, though possibly could have considered cutting a song in the second act. Design by Isaac Lummis works brilliantly to evoke an intimate cabaret venue in the sometimes-cavernous fortyfivedownstairs space. Circus Oz artist Lilikoi Kaos performs a wonderful hula hoop act, giving Davey a chance to catch her breath. As Davey’s ‘helper’, Deborah Eldred makes a great contribution to the show: she evokes a silent and serious matronly character who appears and disappears to assist with costume changes and props, and does not miss a beat.
My Life in the Nude is a wonderful celebration of Davey the artist, and a gripping and emotional embodiment of the political and cultural meaning of the naked human form.
Photo Credit Ponch Hawkes