It was almost inevitable that Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith, creators of feisty, feminist, sexy burlesque cabaret shows such as this year’s Glory Box, would be drawn to Lola Montez.
Image: The Exotic Lives of Lola Montez via Melbourne Fringe.
It was almost inevitable that Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith, creators of feisty, feminist, sexy burlesque cabaret shows such as this year’s Glory Box, would be drawn to Lola Montez. The notorious 19th century exotic dancer and actress defied convention to live life her way, and it’s this desire for freedom that drives The Exotic Lives of Lola Montez along. There’s much more going on in this biographical show, however. It’s framed around the uncertain nature of the scandalous stories told about her, and also suggests that Montez paved the way for later female performers.
The Exotic Lives of Lola Montez premiered in July at Ballarat’s Her Majesty’s Theatre, where the real Montez was reportedly showered with gold nuggets by miners in 1856. They loved her infamous Spider Dance, but others were scandalised, including the editor of The Ballarat Times. It’s said that she publicly horsewhipped him because of his negative review. It comes to Melbourne for the Fringe Festival at Gasworks, a space probably too open for an almost-one-woman show seeking an intimate connection with the audience. There was a connection on opening night, but it seemed fragile.
After a short prologue that eventually circled round to the finale, the show began with the first of several recorded songs from long after Montez’s death. Sarah Vaughan’s sultry Whatever Lola Wants could have been written about this remarkable woman, and neatly set the scene for a tale of lusty, defiant hedonism. Dressed in a Victorian-style gown of black, red and sparkly bits, Caroline Lee stepped across the bare, dimly lit stage and began a 90-minute near-monologue. She was composed, fearless and sensuous, embodying Montez as she looked back on her life, wilfully blurring the line between fact and fiction.
Early on she teased the audience with multiple versions of when and where she died, which left us with a beguiling sense of doubt every time she related a tale from her life. One fact that is known about Montez is that, although she became famous as a so-called Spanish dancer, she was actually Irish. Lee speaks for most of the show with a suitably exotic theatrical accent, but her Irish one is not convincing. Her brief turn as an English novelist at a seance was humorously plummy.
From time to time, Lee took a breather when chanteuse Clare St Clare shimmied on to the stage. For her most memorable appearances, she channelled bombshell cabaret singers of the 1950s and 60s, dressed in figure-hugging dresses and singing, almost purring, with a gorgeous dusky voice. Curiously, St Clare’s first couple of appearances were poorly lit. A suggestion that later ladies of the stage would always be in Montez’s shadow? Probably not, as she was lit just fine later.
The edges of the vast stage were shrouded in darkness throughout, most likely in an attempt to bring some intimacy to the space, with Lee brightly lit among red and blue mood lighting. Backed by a rich red curtain, the set was essentially a chair and a large wooden chest, which became a podium, seat or bed as required. This minimalist approach helped to keep focus on Lee’s strong performance.
Although it was a little short on intimacy – a cabaret-style setting could have made all the difference – The Exotic Lives of Lola Montez is still an intriguing look at its subject’s life, or lives if we were to believe all the stories. It’s also a thought-provoking exploration of what it means for women, then and now, to defy convention, strive for self-determination, and to both reveal and delight in their bodies.
Rating: 3½ stars out of 5
The Exotic Lives of Lola Montez
Performers: Caroline Lee, Clare St Clare
Director: Moira Finucane
Playwright: Jackie Smith
Gasworks, 21 Graham St, Albert Park
Melbourne Fringe Festival
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What the stars mean?
- Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
- Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
- Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
- Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
- Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
- Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
- Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
- One star: Awful, to be avoided
- Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level