MELBA, presented by tempest theatre, is a deceptively light-hearted look at Dame Nellie Melba’s refusal to give up the spotlight.
Writer Dawn Farnham has created a bittersweet vignette exploring the concepts of public life, ego, and women’s roles as objects of beauty and desire. The Dame herself is fabulous. Just as a Dame should be. A perfect balance of the self-absorbed diva and a woman struggling with her creeping fear of obscurity.
Within the space of her dressing room, there are two women: the first, Melba the larger than life icon; the second, Nellie the woman. The struggle between these two identities is palpable as the actor shifts seamlessly between her two masks.
The set perfectly reflects the two halves of MELBA’s protagonist. An image of Melba at the peak of her career sits on one side of the room amongst mannequins draped in jewels and an elegant dress that will clearly never be worn again. But it is hard not to notice that these monuments to her career are in the fringes, whereas, centre stage is Nellie in a chair, drinking gin, eating lamingtons, and reminiscing about her past glory.
The Nellie of the present is no match for her alter ego.
MELBA explores this duality beautifully and it is brought to light through the skilful portrayal of Melba’s assistant, Beverley. The humour sparked between the two actors on stage is purposely hammy, a farce in the style of the era, punctuated by a brief and telling interlude with the arrival of the duplicitous Mrs Dupont.
It is through Beverley’s eyes that the audience comes to love Nellie. His devotion to both Nellie, the woman and Melba, the artist, is touching.
Beverley entreats Nellie stop performing so that his perfect memory of her is left intact. As he recounts the first song he heard Melba sing, Beverley faces the audience as though reminding them that the burden of an artist’s double-identity lies in the public’s insatiable appetite for beauty, perfection, and immortality.
The high point of MELBA comes in musical form. Nellie sits in her chair, alone, listening to a recording of a duet. As the voice of Melba floats across the room, it is as though she is released from her physical connection to Nellie and at last becomes instead the image—beautiful and timeless.
All that is left on stage is Nellie, the woman whose youth and voice have faded. This exquisite moment is at the heart of MELBA.
Sadly, although what the audience was given of MELBA shined, the show ran at just under half of the advertised time, leaving many wanting more.
Tickets available from the FRINGE WORLD website.