The first word spoken in Marilyn, a new play about the endlessly iconic Marilyn Monroe, is an exclamation: “Peroxide!” Spoken by Monroe’s fictional hairdresser Patti (played to perfection by Pauline Knowles), the word is an early expression of the themes that drive the play; of affectation and self-fabrication, not to mention female suffering. In a Q&A session after the play, its star Frances Thorburn spoke of the scalp burns she suffered after a six and a half hour dye treatment to achieve Marilyn’s classic bombshell blonde.
The play, written by Sue Glover, which ended its short run in Glasgow on March 12 but continues at Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre from March 15 to April 2, constitutes a snapshot of Monroe’s celebrated and stormy life. Set in the summer of 1960, the then 34-year-old actress is shooting the film Let’s Make Love and living with her husband Arthur Miller at the Beverly Hills Hotel next door to her costar Yves Montand and his wife, the actress Simone Signoret (played by Dominique Hollier). Both women’s husbands feature prominently in their lives and in the denouement of the action onstage, but neither is seen; only Marilyn, Simone, and their shared hairdresser Patti appear. While a three-person cast is somewhat risky, there is nothing to worry about in the able hands of the three actresses; they all effortlessly inhabit their characters.
When we first encounter Marilyn barrelling her way into Simone Signoret’s room she is in character as the public figure we all know: bubbly, vivacious, demanding our attention. Frances Thorburn initially plays her with an almost manic enthusiasm, flitting across the stage at a breakneck pace and laughing a little too loudly. Her behaviour is in marked contrast to that of Dominique Hollier’s more controlled Simone. But as the play develops, this Marilyn comes and goes, reflecting a private life consumed by anxiety and self-doubt. After the play Thorburn noted a comment in Simone Signoret’s autobiography, that in all the time the two actresses spent together, Simone only remembers seeing Marilyn ‘be Marilyn’ on two occasions. By now Marilyn’s life is such common knowledge that we all know the private pain behind her very public smile; the abandonment and abuse in her childhood, the exploitative sexual politics of mid-century film studios, the miscarriages, the drug dependency. The image she projected was one of a carefree and willing sex object, but as the play demonstrates, this image was one Monroe herself had a hand in carefully manipulating, but one that constrained her.
Despite initial doubt the two actresses eventually become friends, aided along the way by the tough but always empathetic Patti. Their friendship, though, is a troubled one. Jealousy lies onboth sides: Simone is entirely, self-effacingly, devoted to her husband, and becomes more and more vulnerable the closer he gets to his co-star. Marilyn is frustrated by her typecast role as a dumb blonde in frivolous comedies, and her doubts about her career are only confirmed by Simone’s critical success. What is ultimately on display here are the limitations placed on both women. Despite how their lives look from the outside, neither is truly free.
Only in its dramatic conclusion does the play temporarily lose focus. The circumstances of Marilyn Monroe’s early and ambiguous death are already well known and it seems to have become requisite for any artistic depiction of her life to include her overdose. The limited time frame of the first act is part of why the play works so well; by narrowing its scope, it presents a truthful microcosm rather than extravagant generalities. The ending’s overblown mythologizing doesn’t seem to fit with the play’s earlier subtlety. Still, this momentary misstep doesn’t detract from the excellent acting by the three leads, the valuable illumination of the problems still facing women as well as the originality of Marilyn’s take on the most public of public figures.
Marilyn runs until 2nd of April at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh