There is something almost magical about the name Marilyn Monroe. Everybody has heard of the blonde bombshell actress and good time girl who had an affair with JFK and his brother (talk about keep it in the family) and then killed herself, or was possibly killed by the CIA, whilst still young and pretty. But what in reality do we actually know about one of the most photographed women in the world? Well, in “The Unremarkable Death of Marilyn Monroe” part of the ‘Icons’ season at the St James Studio, we finally get an opportunity to learn more about Norma Jean herself.
When entering the theatre, the first thing that strikes you is the believability of the set. An extremely untidy bedroom with clothes and personal possessions, including rather incongruously a picture of Abraham Lincoln, are strewn about the room and on the large bed, Marilyn (Lizzie Wort) is lying face down wearing a simple white dressing gown and holding a telephone receiver. She sits up and acknowledges the fact we are there, the all-seeing/all-judging audience that have shaped her life. And then she starts to talk to us, a final chance to tell her story. Exposing herself in ways that ‘the studio’ would definitely not approve, both Norma Jean and Marilyn inhabit the stage as the strands of their stories come out.
Norma Jean, the shy, vulnerable young girl who wanted to be loved by everyone from her Mother to all of her husbands. A girl with a steely and surprising determination to do whatever was necessary to help her mentally ill mother. She tells of her time with various foster parents and the horrifically moving story of her first sexual experience, something that seemed to have a major impact on her later life and her attitude to sexual relations. She tells us of her early experiences in Hollywood, and the reality of doing what was necessary to get even minor roles in films – the ‘casting couch’ being very alive and well at this time. We also learn of her devotion to those she loved, even putting her own career at risk by supporting her husband Arthur Miller when he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to explain his ‘Marxist’ leanings.
Then there was Marilyn herself. The actress who was suffered from stage fright so badly she was in physical pain before going on set. Who earned a reputation for being difficult to work with and who married men that wanted the ‘sex goddess’ until the ink dried on the wedding certificate when they really wanted her all to themselves as the ‘little woman’ at home. There is a wonderful, if disturbing story of the iconic moment when an upward breeze escaped through a subway grate and made cinematic history. She talks about how she felt having her dress billow up and reveal her underwear, how many takes it took to get the shot, and the awful moment when in amongst the 4,000 strong crowd watching her, she saw her husband Jo DiMaggio and the disappointment in his eyes as he walked away from her ‘exhibitionism’ even though she was hating the experience and wishing it would end. All the time Marilyn/Norma Jean are telling their stories (and in many ways I think it’s important to split this complicated woman into separate entities) she keeps swallowing tablets from different bottles almost, it felt to me, as one would unconsciously eat popcorn whilst watching a movie. The ending, when it came was not a surprise – a bit like watching Titanic, you know she is going to die – but it is really poignant and I did have the familiar tear in my eye as the lights went out.
Writer/Director/Producer Elton Townend Jones has put together a very slick and well researched production. Although told from Marilyn’s perspective, and therefore certain events may have been the subject of a bit of selective memory, I really felt that I learned so much about the lady herself, both her history – which I was slightly aware of due to the show “Smash” – but also her real personality. The constant battle in her head between needing the attention and adoration of the audience and wanting to be a normal girl with a loving husband and stability in her life is played out for us to see with Lizzie (who really captures the essence and vulnerability of Marilyn beautifully) doing some scarily accurate impressions of people in her life.
The icons season has been truly fantastic so far and the spellbinding “The Unremarkable Death of Marilyn Monroe” is a fabulous addition to the set. There is nothing to criticise in this tour de force of writing, directing and acting that left me wondering what Marilyn would be like in 2015 if only Dr. Ralph Greenson, Marilyn’s psychiatrist had found her slightly earlier on the morning of On August 5, 1962. Sadly, we shall never know.
Review by Terry Eastham
The Unremarkable Death of Marilyn Monroe
16th – 18th January 2015
Running Time: 1 hour 25 minutes approx without an interval
St James Studio
From Dyad Productions (Dalloway, Austen’s Women, I, Elizabeth, Female Gothic, The Diaries of Adam and Eve).
Monroe as we’ve never seen her before: alone in her bedroom, in dressing gown and slippers; no glitz, no glamour, no masks. Overdosed on pills, the woman behind the icon unravels her remarkable life and bares all, revealing a biting intelligence, a frustrated talent and an imperfect body. This stark confessional (DiMaggio, Gable, Miller – it’s all here) offers a radical interpretation of this Hollywood legend and leads us, in real time, to the very moment of her death.
Written and directed by Elton Townend Jones.
Cast: Lizzie Wort
Sunday 18th January 2015