‘I felt as if I was supposed to be left with some profound thought or feeling. But somehow I was left with…nothing?’ Blind critic Olivia Muscat is ultimately baffled by Arbus and West
I’ve attempted to write this review several times now. Arbus and West has been in the back of my mind the whole time for more than a week.
It’s not because It was so fantastic or so terrible or so life changing that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. It’s because I’m convinced that I missed something, and I absolutely hate that. I’m ok with works that are left ambiguous or up in the air. But with this play I am still certain that there’s some message that I was supposed to take away from it, and I can’t figure out what it is.
Stephen Sewell’s decision to write about actress Mae West (played by Melita Jurisic) and photographer Diane Arbus (Diana Glenn) felt like a very deliberate choice. To imagine the real-life meeting that occurred between two such interesting and dynamic women is an intriguing prospect. My expectations were lifted: I researched these women, finding each fascinating and controversial in their individual ways, and was prepared for anything.
Lots of things were touched upon in the play: women mostly. Women and their relationships with other women. Women and their relationships to men, to children, to family. Women and sex. The representation of women. But each touch was fleeting: nothing stuck long enough. I felt that we, the audience, were jumping from point to point very quickly, never really getting time to sink our teeth into anything.
When the lights went up at the end of the show, I found myself doing a bit of a comical cartoon character look-around, swivelling my head from side to side in a daze. My mind was almost completely blank. Then I went into overdrive, trying to sort through everything I’d just seen, trying to work out where I had gone wrong. People in my row were stopping at my seat, waiting for me to get out, but I was too deep in my own head to notice. I felt as if I was supposed to be left with some profound thought or feeling. But somehow I was left with…nothing?
As the play unfolded, I was completely absorbed. The story and actors were transporting. Something about the story seemed lifted out of time: sometimes it seemed as if days and days passed languidly, and at others it was as if we were moving very quickly. It felt to me like a dream or a memory, rather than a real time event. I was engrossed.
At the end of act one, Mae West confided to her assistant, Ruby (Jennifer Vuletic), that she believed that Diane Arbus was a spirit, or held the spirit, of a girl she knew in her youth who had been murdered by her father. It made me think that act two was going to unravel into something even more tragic and horrible. It didn’t, but it was still enjoyable to watch: in parts I was laughing and in others I was almost teary with its poignance. The balance it created was excellent and nothing felt completely out of place. Yet I am still unsatisfied.
To say I wanted something to happen would be wrong. Plenty happened, and I was taken by the story and the characters’ relationships to themselves and each other. I think I was waiting for the aha moment, for all the disparate themes to come together in some sort of revelation or new insight. But the moment never seemed to arrive. As much as I like ambiguity, I wanted clarification. As entertaining as spending a couple of hours with these incredible women was, I wanted the play to do more: to affirm me, or cheer me, or even break me. I wanted their relationship to alter something in themselves and in me. It’s how such trailblazing women deserve to be portrayed.
I’m still not sure what exactly the scene at the beginning of each act – set in 1971, at the time of Diane Arbus’ death – was for. Perhaps it set up expectations for something that didn’t end up occurring? Perhaps the whole point was that Arbus and West’s meeting was simultaneously tiny and huge, insignificant and yet life-changing?
I want an answer, but I don’t think I’m going to get it.
Aside from my extreme bafflement at the end, my other major thought was how completely unnecessary Audio Description was for this particular show. The set didn’t change, there were only three performers and the theatre was very small. It was easy to keep track of what was going on. I kept my AD headset turned on just in case something vitally visual happened, which meant strange background noises and somebody breathing in my ear for the entire two hours. It was frustrating, and added very little benefit. There were long, long stretches with no description: I wondered every few minutes why they didn’t just turn off the transmission until they wanted to describe something.
As always, the tactile tour before the show was a good time. Looking at costumes is always fun and listening to stage managers talk about prop and set choices is a treat. The most useful part is being able to walk around the stage and get a real sense of the space through which the actors will be moving. In this instance, for me personally, it made the AD even more redundant. I could have happily seen this show at any ordinary non-described performance and been completely fine.
If nothing else, Arbus and West reminded me that, for all the articles about how social media has made young people too obsessed with our image, filtering and editing and altering our lives, it is not a new phenomenon. Image has been a thing since pictures were invented: probably even before then. Mae West rejecting the photos taken by Diane Arbus may be an extreme example, but we’re all the same. West storming in and throwing her portrait to the ground in 1964 is no different to us in 2019, when our phone asks, “Are you sure you want to permanently delete this image?” And we say, “yes”.
Further reading: Robert Reid’s review of Arbus and West
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