Thrown together in a Beverley Hills hotel, the relationship between Marilyn Monroe (Frances Thorburn) and Oscar-winning French actress Simone Signoret (Dominique Hollier) is used by Scottish playwright Sue Glover not only to question whether blondes really do have more fun; but also as an examination of the impact of the cult of celebrity and the struggle for women to be taken seriously in a male-governed industry.
Philip Howard’s production of Marilyn at the Lyceum is a world premiere in conjunction with Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre. Set in Monroe’s hotel suite, the play follows the fictionalised events during the filming of Let’s Make Love, a critically-panned movie which Marilyn is co-starring in with Signoret’s husband, Yves Montand. As Arthur Miller types away in an adjoining room, Marilyn’s insomnia and love of pills and champagne begin to take their toll on her work – and also on the relationship between the two blonde stars.
Thorburn is excellent as the eponymous heroine: she manages to capture the look and movements of the iconic star without a hint of parody; and her vocalisation also emphasises the split nature of her character. At times the coquettish little girl whose heart belongs to daddy; at others – particularly in an effective scene where she rehearses a speech for winning an imagined Academy Award – the real woman beneath the peroxide is given voice. Thorburn captures this convincingly in a sharp-edged and well-rounded performance which depicts this Marilyn as anything but dumb.
Signoret’s character is most often used as contrast: here is an intelligent and refined woman who chooses her own roles and wins awards based on her acting ability, not on her skills on the casting couch. Hollier is equally strong, as she breathes life into this less iconic figure with a multi-layered performance which exposes the vulnerabilities beneath her cool exterior. Pauline Knowes as ‘stylist to the stars’ Patti is also enjoyable to watch, her character partly serving as Marilyn’s conscience, like Jiminy Cricket with curling tongs.
Kenny Miller’s set design is simple yet effective, the hotel suite also doubling as catwalk and red carpet, aided by Charles Balfour’s lighting. Suitably iconic images of Marilyn are projected on the hotel room walls; at other times, videography of the star is employed to underscore dramatic points. Thorburn also demonstrates her skill as a professional singer during a handful of accurate renditions of some of Monroe’s famous musical numbers.
Like any icon of the 20th century, Marilyn is everyone’s property: a Warhol screenprint staring out through eternity. What Glover’s piece successfully manages to achieve is peel back the image, the gossip and the scandals and provide an imagined glimpse of the real and fragile woman beneath. And with its themes of sexual power and the price of fame, its relevance to a society now even more obsessed with celebrity is undeniable.
Marilyn runs until 2 April. More information is available on the Lyceum website.