‘These cartoonish simplifications of political attitudes clash without any regard for the depths of the real humans being portrayed’: Robert Reid on Stephen Sewell’s Arbus and West
On the surface, Arbus and West doesn’t come across as a Stephen Sewell play, although as it progresses it gradually reveals its Sewell-ness. The Sewell trademarks are subtly present: the clash of ideas and ideologies, the pithy one liners, the international outlook and the turn towards the mythic are all there, some aspects more obviously than others.
But unlike Myth and Propaganda or Hate or Three Furies, Arbus and West doesn’t shout its politics at you. Instead, it insists upon itself through the mythic bigness of its central character, Mae West. Superficially, it reminds me a little of earlier work such as Traitors, character studies that reveal deeper political realities through their combative dialogue and fleeting encounters.
It’s set mostly during the legendary 1964 photoshoot of West conducted by rising star photographer Diane Arbus that resulted in a lawsuit by West after she saw the published photo. This production, directed by Sarah Goodes, recreates an aging West who holds forth on her feelings about everything from feminism to the future, men and Hollywood and her favourite subject, herself.
As always with shows in which actors put on accents, it takes me a solid 10 minutes to see past them; they always feel thick and affected to me and get in the way of the dialogue. But once West and Arbus come together, they seem to relax into the performance and the characters emerge from behind the wall of affected regional New York drawl.
The impersonation of West by Melita Jurisic in particular becomes convincing, as both actor and character begin to relax their well-constructed facades. Supported by her dresser and assistant Ruby (Jennifer Vuletic), West is initially suspicious of the younger woman, Arbus (Diana Glenn); the two women manoeuvre around the photographer, coy and wary. West has a carefully constructed image to maintain; not only the image of her that her public has constructed but the one she has built for herself.
Arbus contends that West’s image is more prison than liberation. To Arbus, West is a woman caged by her fantasies of freedom, trapped by the desire of men behind bars of isolation and loneliness while telling herself all these things have been her own decisions. By the end of the play, West comes to agree with her.
The play uses Arbus and West as ciphers for attitudes sometimes adopted in the name of feminism (despite neither of the historical women having declared any kind of allegiance to the feminist political movements of their day). Arbus is the young outsider. Through her, the play gives voice to a restrained and academic kind of ‘60s feminism that’s contrasted with the behaviour of West, which stands in for an older, brassier and tougher generation’s attitude towards the relationships of power between the sexes.
Of course, the interrogation happening on stage is neither Arbus nor West’s, but Sewell’s. Arbus is little more than her camera, a machine for revealing only what is already in plain sight. They are at pains to point out that “you can’t fool the camera”. Even Ruby, the faithful retainer, tells West early on, “You can fool the public and you can fool yourself, but you can’t fool me”. The structure of the work sets West up as a kind of straw woman, a representative of self-proclaimed feminine agency, and uses Arbus’ documented ability to draw her subjects out of themselves as a tool to bring West to a moment of crucial personal re-evaluation.
Whether the real West was truly acting on her own desires, taking pleasure and power from the men, her fans and the Hollywood machine for her own gratification is not really at issue. Instead, these cartoonish simplifications of political attitudes (a Sewell signature if ever there was one) clash without any regard for the depths of the real humans being portrayed. It might be fair enough in a completely fictional work like Hate, but is a bit more iffy when the cartoons are caricatures of real people.
The play begins at its end, in the middle of a curtain call for one of West’s performances, in which Ruby informs her that Arbus has committed suicide. This information hangs in the air over the entire performance, and since very little else of consequence is revealed about Arbus, it’s all she comes to represent. Doomed youth, doomed brilliance, doomed women; The doom that hovers around West herself, but that she evades with her sex appeal, her moxy and her bon mots.
Sewell never lets an opportunity go by to give West a good line, a funny put down or smart evasion, so much so that they seem to form the bulk of West’s self-expression. Of course, this is another cage to keep her in, to keep the men in her life, everyone in her life, at a distance. It’s a glamorous distance across which everyone can only see what they want to see, the projection of their own fantasies of what a powerful woman should look like, strong, bold and sexually available.
Around this luminous shadow the enigmatic Arbus paces and purrs. On Renee Mulder’s almost all-white set, accented here and there with light beige details and gold trim, Arbus exists like an ink blot. Dressed all in beatnik black, skinny jeans, turtle neck and beaten black leather jacket, she’s visually a contrast to the other women: West who is dressed all in white – the perpetual virgin/whore – and Ruby, clad for the most part in neutral browns like the accessories the fill the white room.
It’s the room once owned by the studio men, where they put Mae West in between filming, a metaphorical prison that reflects her simplistic self-constructed identity. White, clean and tidy, with a bedroom where no man has spent the night, because once she has given them what they want, she ushers them quickly out the door. After you give a man what he wants, what they all want, she says, then all they want a woman to do is to clean up after them or bring them a beer. So instead she gets in first, disposing of them before they can turn her into something domestic. Something small.
Gradually, through flattery mostly, Arbus (and Sewell) draw out of West her secrets and hidden selves: her faith in spiritualism, her love for her family, her gullibility and need for attention. To keep Arbus around, despite regularly telling her to go away, West eventually, maybe inevitably, gives all of her self to the camera. Her pet monkey, her closet full of plaster cast penises (the audience finds this very funny) and even her true face, undisguised by makeup and artifice, photographed in her sacred bedroom. She gives to Arbus and her camera and so to everyone in the world a glimpse of the self she has revealed to no man.
We barely see the photograph at the end; it’s only a glimpse when West sees it for the first time and realises how much of herself she has given away. We can see very clearly in the slump of her shoulders her sense of betrayal, although its not clear if she feels betrayed by Arbus or herself. In the flash forwards that preface each act, West pretends firstly that she doesn’t remember the photographer and secondly that she doesn’t care that she has died; but it is clear that this meeting cut deep.
As a portrayal of Mae West, the woman and the myth she created of herself, the play is comprehensive; but the bigness of her character overbalances the entirety of the work. The myth that remains unexplored is Arbus. I wanted to know more about her through the whole play. Some hints of her sadness – heavily foreshadowed by the knowledge of her suicide – come to the surface, mostly because West keeps telling her that she can see her sadness, how it hangs around her. There’s some fleeting back story about Arbus’s family in New York, but nothing that makes her feel as developed as West. Instead she becomes increasingly confused with a ghost haunting West, a memory of a lost friend from her childhood whom the superstitious West comes to think has returned to speak to her through Arbus.
After an hour or so of verbal fencing between West and Arbus, the first act takes a fairly hard right turn just before interval that colours everything that has gone before and informs much of what comes next. Although it never develops into much more than a pre interval shocker, there are light touches in the second act that support West’s insistence that Arbus is the mouthpiece for this ghost. It doesn’t resolve; it’s left hanging, haunting the stage, and adds little to our understanding of either woman.
In fact, the role of Arbus, beyond being a camera lucida for West, is largely left unsatisfied. The contrast of these two women, their stories, their politics, their mythologies, goes begging. West and Ruby are constantly asking Arbus what she wants and why she’s there. A not unreasonable interrogation in the beginning, perhaps; but if the play hasn’t answered those questions by the end, something is fundamentally missing. In this case, it’s Arbus herself. For a great deal of the play, one of Arbus’s cameras sits on a tripod down stage centre, right in front of the audience, pointed at the action. I’m not sure I remember ever Arbus using it, as she carries a second camera slung around her neck, “shooting off a few”, flashing bulbs and catching West in candid moments. The neglected eye of the camera reflects Arbus’ role in the play; present, watching, largely silent.
Sewell allows Arbus a moment of pained self-reflection almost at the end, before she takes her final photos and leaves the stage, heading out of the light to what we know will be her eventual death. But it’s not enough time to give her final words the weight they need.
The unbalanced nature of the play turns what could be a really interesting interrogation of both women into a one-way gladiatorial battle that struggles to maintain a dramaturgical rhythm. There’s so much here that might be more fully explored. The text glides over much of this territory, failing to drill down into thematic bedrock. The interpersonal politics of two very different generations are given light treatment (one wonders how well that might be handled by Sewell anyway; perhaps he’s right to avoid mansplaining two such striking women). Likewise, he barely touches on how we carve the facades of our identities out of our pasts, our relationships, our fears and our egos. These things are in the air but never land. As audience members behind me said as the lights went up at interval, “well, its very verbose”.
Which suggests to me that there are more pressing concerns in the zeitgeist that Arbus and West fails to catch. There is a lot, and I do mean a lot, of intellectual potential in the premise of their meeting, and what is perhaps most unlike a Stephen Sewell play about it is that Sewell resists the temptation to pick it up and wield it.
Arbus and West by Stephen Sewell, directed by Sarah Goodes. Set and costume by Renee Mulder, lighting design by Paul Jackson, composer and Sound Design by Celemence Williams. Performed by Melita Jurisic, Diana Glenn and Jennifer Vuletic. Melbourne Theatre Company. Until March 30. Bookings
Wheelchair accessible. Hearing assistance.
Audio Described: Saturday 16 March at 2pm, Tuesday 19 March at 6.30pm
Tactile Tour: 1pm prior to the Saturday 16 March performance
Open Captioning via screen: Saturday 23 March at 2pm