Arbus and West: A dame that knows the ropes isn’t likely to get tied up

Stephen Sewell’s Arbus and West, presented by Melbourne Theatre Company, is a power play between three women. All are connected by Mae West, a sex symbol of the 1920’s and 30’s, and the person which the play revolves around. The show follows one day in West’s Hollywood apartment when she is photographed by controversial fashion photographer Diane Arbus, as well as featuring a number of flash forwards to a Vegas performance several years on. The writing is a perfect cocktail of deep emotion and worldly insights, fettered with constant witticisms that keep the work from slowing in tempo. 

As someone who had never previously heard of Mae West, the play does a fabulous job of weaving in contextual information about her life, beliefs and work. By the end of the performance I feel almost as though I lived through the Mae West era, and I could certainly see why she caused such a sensation. Directed by Melbourne Theatre Company’s Associate Artistic Director Sarah Goodes, the work explores feminism, stardom, and what it takes to make a career in a society even more hyper masculine than the one of the present day. 

Melita Jurisic undoubtedly does the iconic Mae West justice, making bold character choices to portray the eccentricities of the star. She adopts a husky voice and her seductive facial expressions partnered with flirtatious hand gestures and a prancing gait help create a show stealing role. Her job is certainly made more difficult by her sparring partner Diane Arbus, played by Diana Glenn. The character itself feels thin, like Sewell spent more time on Mae West and didn’t quite finish writing the photographer. A lack of complexity in the writing could have been rectified through acting prowess, but unfortunately Glenn flounders on stage. Although it is undoubtedly due to the work being both world premiere and the show I saw being early in it’s run, but there is rarely a scene where Glenn does not drop lines. Large chasms of empty space are created as the audience waits for her to recall, or else cringes when she begins a line, only to realise she has begun halfway through and decides to go back to the beginning and repeat all the sentences again. Fortunately Jennifer Vuletic as Mae West’s dresser Ruby is strong and full of humour. She often manages to pick up the slack, and handles on stage costume slip-ups with comedy and character. 

The costume and set give the actors plenty to play with. Renée Mulder creates a luxuriously decorated apartment in a white and pastel colour palette littered with flowers and trinkets of various kinds. The costuming helps create contrast between the three women, reminding the audience of their own branches of feminism and how they function in the highly patriarchal and conservative society. Glenn wears tight fitting black pants with turtleneck, while Jurisic glides in a floor length negligee of white lace. Vuletic stamps around stage in sensible shoes, reminding everyone of where they need to be and when. 

Perhaps even more instrumental than the design, are the accents. Notorious for forced general American, dialect coach Jean Goodwin takes the company into a believable realm of voice. All actors have their own distinctive articulations which are not only evocative of a location, but also an upbringing and a childhood. Just as good dialects should, the actor’s accents blend into their character choices, thus supporting them in their creation of distinctive and interesting women. 

This play demonstrates how the supporting elements of a creative work can come together to create art that is dynamic and engaging. Arbus and West is a fascinating take on larger than life characters, dealing with issues still prevalent today. Leaving the theatre I am left still thinking, and eager to find the photograph Arbus took that day that resulted in Mae West wanting to sue. 

Lucy Holz 

Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Arbus and West runs at Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio from 22 February — 30 March 2019.

Photography by Jeff Busby

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