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Two days later, Monroe was dead, having overdosed on barbiturates, and the interview took on a kind of iconic status of its own. Yet it represented only a fraction of the five-hour conversation Monroe and Meryman had shared at her Los Angeles home.
In 2007, Dickie Beau, an experimental theatre-maker and alternative nightclub star, was developing a new form of performance. He had become fascinated with the interior lives of iconic figures known for their talent and their dysfunction, and he was intrigued by the possibilities of lip-synching to their spoken words. He began to search for material that revealed new sides to familiar names and shape it into first-person narratives of his own.
When he heard excerpts from Meryman’s Monroe interview in a TV documentary, Beau was transfixed. ‘You hear her discussing life as a human being,’ he says, ‘albeit a particular kind of life as a famous person. She’s found herself in this remarkable situation of being a major sex symbol yet there’s something childlike about her voice. Finding out that these tapes existed, I felt I must track them down.’
It would turn into something of an odyssey. Richard Meryman, by then in his eighties and living in New York, had only ever released audio of the material that found its way into print, but Beau was intrigued by what had never been released. Eventually, Meryman agreed to let him listen to the full recordings – the first person to do so other than himself.
‘It was quite emotional,’ Beau recalls, ‘quite intimate. At the beginning, she asks if she can get him anything, if she can make him a tuna sandwich. And at the end she pleads, very sincerely, “Please don’t make a joke out of me.” To hear her say that made me feel very close to her. I wanted to share a sense of her human touch. I had heard she was more intelligent than you expect and that she had a sense of humour, and those came across on the tapes. But also her vulnerability. And also her strength. I came away a big fan.’
Over the next two years, Beau raised money to cover the costs needed to incorporate the material into a show. But just before he returned to New York in 2010, Meryman got cold feet. ‘He was scared the results might be disrespectful or sensationalist,’ says Beau, but he agreed to be interviewed himself. The two compared notes on working with celebrities and storytelling. ‘A couple of days later, he called me up in my hotel room and said he’d changed his mind.’
In the end, Meryman permitted Beau to use about 15 minutes of material for ‘Blackouts’. The performer was drawn to the parts that exposed Monroe’s contradictions. ‘She protests more than once that “We’re not machines! We must remember, we're not machines!” But so intent is she on getting this message across that she almost falls into sounding like a stuck record. There is a yearning to be understood you can almost feel in her voice. For me, the most evocative sound is her bursting spontaneously into musical laughter. It has an indelible quality.’
Beau’s show is entirely lip-synched to the recorded voices of others: Marilyn, of course, and Judy Garland, and also Meryman himself. Exploiting bravura lighting and projection effects, the results are funny, compelling and deeply moving, with an uncanny quality that stems from Beau’s white-face mask of make-up, the emotional power of the words he selects and the technical precision of his lip synching. (This approach was also on show in ‘Lost in Trans–’, a kind of companion piece to ‘Blackouts’ that Beau presented at Southbank Centre as part of the Queering Voices weekend that he programmed there in July 2013.) ‘I think it’s better than impersonation,’ he says. ‘I become a bit like a screen.’ That’s something Monroe would have surely understood.
‘Blackouts: Twilight of the Idols’ is at the Soho Theatre, July 17 to 27.