Arbus & West (MTC) – theatre review

Talented photographer Diane Arbus (Diane Glenn) meets sex symbol Mae West (Melita Jurisic – complete with sultry voice) in the MTC’s new play Arbus & West. In 1964, Arbus arrived at West’s pristine LA apartment to take snaps of the famous star, then 71. The play explores a fictional account of that real encounter between two trailblazing women who had different views of the world.

Known for her lighthearted double-entendres and breezy sexual independence, West’s entertainment career spanned seven decades. In Arbus, she well and truly meets her match. As revealed in the play, West lives alone with a housekeeper and attendant Ruby (Jennifer Vuletic) at her beck and call. While she has bedded many men, none of them are ever allowed to stay over. She also has a soft spot for clairvoyants. But West had a terrible experience as a young girl, which rears its ugly head again on seeing Arbus.

Arbus is determined to capture the real Mae West, not the posed mannequin. If the fact that Arbus is a female photographer isn’t off-putting enough for West, then Arbus’ frank questioning certainly is. It appears that West is challenged like never before.  Ruby doesn’t like it one little bit. But West goes from indignant to intrigued as the shoot – which lasts for hours – goes on. Arbus is determined to get to the photographic truth.

We learn about Arbus too and that her life is far from a bed of roses. But her passion for photography and what is revealed by it is telling.

The two women’s ideologies clashed drastically and playwright Stephen Sewell drew inspiration from their meeting. As Sarah Corridon writes in the program notes for Arbus & West, “Crossing boundaries was at the core of both West and Arbus’ endeavours. West was famous for the way she was seen, while Arbus was famous for what she saw.”

The interplay between the women (and that includes Ruby) is at times bitchy, at other times sinister, on occasions revelatory and certainly mysterious.

All three women are skillfully realised – all formidable in their own ways. I was particularly taken by the seemingly effortless portrayal by Diane Glenn of Arbus, a character who appeared comfortable in her own skin. Melita Jurisic frequently brought peals of laughter from the audience for her wisecracks as the potty-mouthed West. Jennifer Vuletic as Ruby straddled that fine line between being exasperated by West and being protective of her.

The play asks what is artifice; and where does the public’s right to know start and end when it comes to celebrity? I was engaged and entertained throughout. Director Sarah Goodes has done a great job bringing the play to life. So has the set and costume designer Renee Mulder in contrasting the attire worn by West and Arbus – provocative versus androgynous. So too in her creation of an elegant period set.

The world premiere of Arbus & West is at the Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne, until 30 March, 2019. I saw the first preview performance of the play.

Alex First

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