Grey Gardens, with special reference to women in theatre

Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre, Seymour Centre, Sydney, November 20.

On Monday night I went to an inspiring meeting in Sydney organised by Women in Theatre and Screen – WITS – to discuss gender inequity in the arts and to plan a positive, sensible, achievable course of action. One of the greatest truths spoken was that discrimination against women can be so entrenched as to be virtually invisible.

Women are the primary decision-makers in buying theatre tickets, so why hasn’t the audience risen up and demanded greater visibility for women and their experiences? I was reminded of a conundrum posed to me when I was very young. It was probably in the late 1950s, and went something like this: A boy is badly injured, taken by his father to the hospital, and raced into surgery. The doctor emerges from the operating theatre and says: “I’ve saved my son.” This was a real head-scratcher. The father had brought his son to the hospital; how could he also have done the operation? The answer, of course, was that the surgeon was a woman. But it took a lot of cogitation in those days to come up with that solution. Surgeon. Woman. Gee, that doesn’t compute.

In Ireland there’s a similar push for visibility for women theatre-makers, hastened by the Abbey Theatre’s 2016 program announcement. The season is called Waking the Nation but half the nation wasn’t getting much of a look in. There was only one play by a woman and of the 10 directors, three are women. Enter the campaign Waking the Feminists.

The Abbey’s artistic director Fiach Mac Conghail didn’t get off to a brillilant start in reply to the outcry, Tweeting: “I don’t and haven’t programmed plays or productions on a gender basis. I took decisions based on who I admired and wanted to work with.” Who was admired? Who did Mac Conghail mostly want to work with? Mostly people like himself, it appeared. Men. Mac Conghail quickly retreated, realising how breathtakingly dismissive he sounded and the Abbey has acknowledged it has some work to do.

Sometimes it takes a lot of agitation, as well as cogitation, to change things.

As it happens, in the past couple of weeks I have seen three productions – all musicals – in which women have been central figures, the ones that drive the action. Visible. That doesn’t mean the problem is solved, of course. It’s like saying if there are one or two women on a company board everyone should think everything is just dandy. It was, however, a wonderful alignment of the stars.

GG_Maggie Blinco, Beth Daly 2_Pic Michael Francis

Maggie Blinco and Beth Daly in Grey Gardens. Photo: Michael Francis

The musical Matilda has a pint-sized heroine who is brainy, gutsy and hugely imaginative; Queensland Theatre Company’s new musical Ladies in Black, based on the Madeleine St John novel with a book by Carolyn Burns and music by Tim Finn, has an overwhelmingly female cast and is set in the frock department of a big store; and Grey Gardens dares to be about two very difficult women –and what a no-no that is generally thought to be.

I’ve written about Matilda here and will write next week on Ladies in Black (both shows will be seen in Melbourne next year). Grey Gardens, which was given its Australian premiere by The Production Company in 2011, is having its first Sydney outing thanks to small independent company Squabbalogic.

When Albert and David Maysles made their celebrated 1975 documentary about former high society fixtures Little Edie Beale and her mother, Big Edie, you could perhaps say the women, performers manqué both, finally got the audience they had so long craved. The fascinating musical based on Grey Gardens suggests another way of looking at it. What happens when ambition, high spirits and individuality are stifled and thwarted?

Photographs of Little Edie show a remarkably beautiful young woman. She was American royalty, one of the well-to-do Beales whose summer home was the East Hamptons mansion Grey Gardens. As a gorgeous, rich, upper-crust gal in the 1930s and 1940s, Little Edie’s trajectory was apparently fixed: go to lots of parties, date eligible men (Howard Hughes and J. Paul Getty were said to be among her beaux), marry well like her mother and stay out of the newspapers.

There was little chance of the last once it was discovered, in the 1970s, that she and Big Edie were living in considerable squalor in their disintegrating house with perhaps 50 cats for company. The connection with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, their cousin and niece, assured wide publicity.

The 2006 musical by Doug Wright (book), Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics) looks to the past not so much for answers to this reversal of fortune as for clues. The set-up is perhaps over-extended but has its charms. In the first half we see a fictional rendering of the lively Beale establishment on an eventful afternoon in 1941, cunningly played in light musical-comedy style. Big Edie is presiding over preparations for a party at which Little Edie’s engagement to Joe Kennedy Jnr is to be announced. You might think Little Edie should be at the heart of proceedings but Big Edie has other ideas, having prepared a list of nine songs and arias she will present as the evening’s entertainment.

Her husband is expected to make a rare appearance, coming from New York by train – cue the jaunty The Five-Fifteen – and already present in the house are two little girls, the bride-to-be’s cousins Jackie (later Kennedy) and Lee (later Radziwill), Big Edie’s great chum George Strong Gould and her father, Major Bouvier. Naturally there’s a servant to answer the telephone, Brooks, who now would be called African-American but then would definitely have just been black.

The unnerving centrepiece of the first act is Big Edie’s undermining of Little Edie’s chances, delivered to Joe Kennedy Jnr as an anecdote supposed to illustrate Little Edie’s vivacity and wide appeal. Is Big Edie monstrous, stupid or self-sabotaging? Spoiling things for Little Edie turns out to be quite the own goal.

The second act leaps forward to 1973 and a situation that seems darkly surreal but is taken directly from the Maysles film. Mother and daughter are now indigent and irrevocably tied to one another, the Vladimir and Estragon of Suffolk County. They are not, however, lacking in wit and resilience as Frankel and Korie’s songs, now emotionally rich, establish.

Big Edie is indeed fantastically vain and controlling but there’s a mad kind of freedom in the way she lives, careless of rules and standards. In her palmier days she knew the rules of the Establishment all right but failed to be compliant enough and paid a big price, as women so frequently do. Big Edie ended up divorced, more or less disinherited and broke; Little Edie couldn’t make much of a splash in the wider world and came home to Grey Gardens and mother.

“It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present,” says Little Edie, a perception underlined by having one actress play Big Edie in the first half and Little Edie in the second. It’s a gift of an opportunity and Beth Daly grabs it avidly for Squabbalogic, playing Big Edie with self-absorption so grand as to be almost admirable and wonderfully capturing Little Edie’s glorious eccentricity and underlying melancholy, although over-egging the woman’s distinctive accent.

It’s also very difficult to depict the glamour and privilege of the Beales’ glory days when you don’t have a bean, which is pretty much the Squabbalogic situation. The company doesn’t usually let that defeat inspiration as productions of Carrie and Man of La Mancha proved. Grey Gardens presents the challenge of conveying the 28-room mansion’s glory days and alas Squabbalogic’s set looks far too cheap and wobbly in Act I before the rot sets in. It’s a big distraction.

Still, there’s a decent band of nine – luxury in these circumstances – led by Hayden Barltrop and director Jay James-Moody has his usual incisive hand at the helm. He has gathered a strong cast, pre-eminently Maggie Blinco in magisterial form as Big Edie in Act II. Caitlin Berry is a glowing first-half Little Edie although it’s difficult to see in her the woman she becomes (not her fault – there’s not enough in the book); Simon McLachlan doubles impressively as Little Edie’s intended groom Joe Kennedy Jnr and helpful teenager Jerry; and Blake Erickson is wryly amusing as Big Edie’s indispensible friend, hanger-on and enabler George Gould Strong.

Big Edie died in 1977, after which Little Edie went to live in Florida. When permission was sought to turn the documentary into a musical, Albert Maysles got in touch with Little Edie. In an interview, Frankel said Little Edie was delighted at the prospect, replying to Maysles: “I am thrilled by what you wrote about the musical g.g! My whole life was music and song! It made up for everything! With all that I didn’t have, my life was joyous!” Little Edie didn’t see the musical. She died in 2002.

Grey Gardens ends December 12.

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