One of the highlights in my theatre going life was sitting in the third row at Her Majesty’s theatre watching Bernadette Peters in concert. The minute she entered I knew I was watching the real thing; someone who could embody the wonder we feel when we look at stars in the sky. She had a presence and an ability to focus on the emotional essence of a song in ways that made me feel like I was the only person in the room. It was my first night off after a fortnight of graveyard shifts in a casino and it was a much-needed tonic for the soul. It didn’t matter that she flubbed lyrics, or her voice isn’t what it was in her prime, I would forgive her anything.
Songs for Nobodies by Joanna Murray Smith, written ten years ago as a vehicle for Bernadette Robinson superbly captures what it is like to feel invisible by the mundanity of our lives. How a singular artist can make our personal tragedies and yearnings feel equal to the ways they represent them. In this case, through song. The text honours 5 of the 20th centuries greatest interpreters of lyric and melody; Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Maria Callas.
To call what Robinson does mimicry would be a profound disservice; she has a chameleonic ability to embody the essence the performer that are heightened by her own interpretations and nuances. It’s a gift that goes beyond imitation or recreation but brings them to life with empathetic urgency. If this wasn’t enough, she also creates five very ordinary, familiar working-class women whose lives are coloured by their brief interactions with the stars. They all feel comfortably lived in with their own ambitions, sorrows and drive. Under Simon Phillips’ direction she dominates the space by creating five disparate presences for each woman. It’s a masterclass in seamless characterisation and one I hope students of performance will pay rapt attention to.
Some monologues are organically stronger than others at capturing the essence of the effects of the songstress’s legacies and influence. A washroom attendant shares a moment of quiet empathy with Judy Garland; conjuring up her gift for forging a connection with her audience that manages to feel singular and personal. Patsy Cline’s generosity is well known and her decision to pull an usherette on stage with her to sing back up changes the course of her life on the night that hers would end. A librarian from Nottingham tells a thrilling story about her father being rescued from a concentration camp, as legend has it by Piaf, the little sparrow herself. It’s in the final two monologues that the seams begin to show. The section on Billie Holiday is particularly complex given that central conceit rests on a white woman replicating her singing voice. Murray Smith’s decision to have her ‘nobody’ be a wily and ambitious newspaper reporter who profiles Holiday is ripe with potential; a white woman using her proximity to Holliday’s meteoric talent and tragic life for personal gain has dramatic heft but I believe is held back by some resistance to be more appropriative than showcasing Robinson’s embodiment of her voice. More baffling still is how Maria Callas is sidelined in the final monologue to focus on an Irish Nanny’s encounter with Aristotle Onassis as they are beginning their famous affair. Robinson sublimely channelling Callas in Vissi d’arte is always going to be a heart stopping moment but I wish that her artistry and persona had been more represented given that Murray Smith really pulls out the writing stops with her depiction of the mystical aura associated with fame and prestige and the aching effect it has on those of us who feel invisible.
Simon Phillip’s production is elegant and accessible with some lovely technical nuances that don’t draw attention to themselves but serve Robinson’s performance beautifully.
Songs for nobodies is a delightful end of year treat and opportunity to witness one of country’s greatest artists in her prime.
Songs for Nobodies is playing at Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio until January 5th.
Performance: 5 Direction: 4.5 Text: 4
Musical Direction: 5 Set/costume: 4.5 Sound/lighting: 4.5