Thursday 3rd May 2017
Ever since human beings first picked up wode, or ochre, or tattoo ink, or henna, they have been using art to transform the outward appearance of their faces and bodies. Sometimes these changes are fleeting, or they can last a lifetime, but they are part of what makes us human and help us express our sense of self, of belonging, of allegiance, of attitude of mind. Long before the advent of the ‘industrial age’ such techniques, traditions, fashions and – yes – originality have aroused recognition, devotion, loyalty, hostility, resentment, envy, anger, hatred, and any number of other emotional or considered responses. But, as Walter Benjamin might have observed, it is since the advent of mass production, supply and consumption that ‘The Beauty Industry’ has really arisen, and that becomes the playground explored by this drama.
Two founding colossi of the now multi-billion-dollar-a-year global behemoth were Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, and it is into their inner sanctum sanctorum, the world characterised by their offices atop Manhattan skyscrapers – and other, similarly highly desirable locations, that this play takes us. There, it parades in front of our eyes the final decade of the Rubinstein’s life, seeing in her last years a series of snapshots to illustrate the business of the make-up sector, and exposing the profound realities of the human condition that underlie it.
Having chanced across a proposal from the author, John Misto, when in her other home of Australia, Miriam Margolyes’s fascination was piqued sufficiently to approach her good friend and colleague, Artistic Director of the Park Theatre, Jez Bond, and encourage him to take up the idea and run with it. A lucky coincidence of her availability, the appearance of sufficient funds to pay for the venture (thanks to producers Oliver Mackwood, and Paul Tyrer and Jamie Clark [for TBO Productions & Tour Booking]), and the happy coincidence of getting the great Frances Barber to play Arden, and also the ever-useful Jonathan Forbes to take up the third corner of Rubinstein’s somewhat unlikely PA, gay war veteran Patrick O’Higgins, and suddenly getting a vacant slot in the Park’s programme, and – voila! – a production was born.
Bond not only directs this one, but he has also workshopped the script through no fewer than ten drafts. It is possible that – given more time – he may have wanted a draft or two more. But we have what we have here, and its merits are sufficiently abundant to please and instruct and move. Having begun as very cinematic, the play still has epic scope, vaulting from one year to the next, through deals and subterfuges, industrial espionage and ruthless competition (especially with the ladies’ mutually detested foe, Charles Revson – who is today remembered as something of a philanthropist, but you would never know that from the way he gets trashed by Lena and Liz). The point of the drama, of course, is to offer us a theatrical vision, not a documentary. And it is in the sparking, electric, vivid language of the script that the work animates these characters, and charms and touches listeners through their extremely varied interactions.
The stage is often nearly empty, and the language works best when it is least encumbered by furniture. However, after the quicksilver scene changes of ‘Chinglish’, the designer of this production, Alistair Turner’s penchant for nice Manhattan office pieces, which have to be carried on and off by ASMs in sepulchral gloom while Miles Davis serenades us, suggests to me that this play may ultimately be intended for theatres where such items can slither on and off at the flick of a computerised switch. No matter. Mark Howland lights it all tastefully and tactfully, with Dimitri Scarlato’s music coming at us through David Gregory’s sound plan. We can overlook any visible joins.
Why? Because, underneath the brisk, tough manner of two mega-fierce businesswomen (in an age when the term hardly existed), there is so much wonderful heart that we just don’t mind about the slightly jerky progress of the tale (pace all the layers of polish lavished upon it by Mr Bond). This, in the last analysis, is a play about what it is to be human, and nothing defines a human being more than their way of coming into the world, and their going out of it, both of which we get discussed and represented here to extraordinarily powerful effect. We care – absolutely care – about what happens to Rubinstein, and to those around her. In her magnificent life we see fragments of our own worlds flash by, in her struggles analogies to our problems momentarily coalesce, before being swept along by the irrepressible broom of time (and just watch out for the ‘broom’ joke!).
Yes, jokes. This script is stuffed full of them, and they are played to their fullest extent by the glorious talents on stage. Margolyes is all stillness and urgent rouge-et-noir power; her delivery like acid etching a design on copperplate. Barber speaks with that magical voice that sounds like oloroso mixed with double cream and sprinkled with Pyrenean truffle. Every second in their company is like reading a gorgeous glossy magazine that you just can’t put down. Did I say that both look totally stunning, wearing a mouth-wateringly lovely wardrobe that presumably has to be kept in a safe? The astringent stinger to this pair is necessarily the one man they tolerate to occupy the same stage as themselves: Mr O’Higgins. He begins capably enough, but really becomes the vulnerable, messy, often helpless, daft side-kick, in need of their constant care and attention, otherwise, God knows what kind of a state he’d get himself into. Indeed, we briefly get to see him in his birthday suit – an apt reminder that sex does, somewhere, lurk beneath all this construction of appearances. It’s a fun formula, and it works. The run at the Park may be sold out, but I think supplies may be back in the shops any day now… Keep watching for announcements of new deliveries!