Terry Johnson’s Marilyn: From ‘Prism’ to ‘Insignificance’

Robert Lindsay as Jack Cardiff in ‘Prism’

Prism, Terry Johnson’s new play at the Hampstead Theatre about the twilight years of Marilyn’s favourite cameraman Jack Cardiff, is enjoying  positive reviews. Elsewhere in London, Johnson’s most famous work – Insignificance – will be revived next month at the Arcola Theatre, with his daughter, Alice Bailey-Johnson, playing the Monroe-inspired leading lady.

Poster art for ‘Insignificance’

“Gorgeous photographs of Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich hang around the garage, and an expensive camera is held up on a stand. There’s a problem though; the device doesn’t work, as it’s missing a vital component, the prism. The prism is a miracle of light, and an object that splits this light into a rainbow of three colours, creating a Technicolor fantasy.

Written and directed by Terry Johnson, the play cleverly weaves together two time periods: the Fifties and present day. Despite not much happening in terms of dramatic action, the text is full of light-hearted motifs and one-liners, keeping the audience engaged. However, Prism also packs a real punch, as it deals with an illness currently effecting a lot of people: dementia.

Suffering from the disease, Jack doesn’t know who he is or who his family are. His son Mason (Barnaby Kay), has requested he write a memoir, however Jack only seems to remember the past without its glory. Riddled with anxiety over the task, he is supported by a carer (Rebecca Night). As Jack, Robert Lindsay gives a masterclass in stage acting. The comedy lands at all the right points and his full embodiment of every Cardiff trait is surreal to watch.” – Alistair Wilkinson, Broadway World

“Cardiff’s memories of his famous subjects – Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart on The African Queen, Marilyn Monroe accompanied by her husband Arthur Miller on The Prince and the Showgirl – glimmer in the air … There’s strong support too from Claire Skinner who gets to impersonate Katharine Hepburn, and from Rebecca Night who is transformed from carer into Monroe and Lauren Bacall. But it’s Lindsay’s night.” – Sarah Crompton, What’s On Stage

“Lucy (Rebecca Night), who’s been hired as Jack’s carer and typist, doesn’t have much of a clue about how to fulfil either role, though she does eventually prove to have a kind of natural empathy for him … Night is also reborn as a shimmering, statuesque Marilyn Monroe, to re-enact an earlier scene she shared with Cardiff as Lucy when the ailing cinematographer imagined her as the Blonde Bombshell on his own casting couch. Barnaby doubles as Monroe’s affronted husband Arthur Miller.” – Adam Sweeting, The Arts Desk

“When Robert Lindsay’s concertedly serene, quietly agitated Jack holds up the refractive optical marvel that was a key component of his adventures in colour – ‘God’s eye’ – it’s hard not to feel a frisson of wonder. Our response to the way the domestic scene that greets him in his converted, memorabilia-crammed Buckinghamshire garage is twisted by his diseased mind into memories of yore is more complex, however. Johnson invites some hesitant laughter as Cardiff talks funny, imagines his local boozer has gone missing and fleetingly confuses his carer with Monroe and his son with Arthur Miller, reliving old conversations. Yet the piece is suffused with real pain, the family torn between despair and indulgence.” – Dominic Cavendish, Telegraph

“The problem is that because Cardiff worked so much with the famous, the play doesn’t inspire the immediate empathy of a work like Florian Zeller’s The Father, with its more mundane hero. If it finally touches our hearts, it is because it reveals the cost to those close to Cardiff of his final decline and because of its recognition that no life achieves a perfect narrative arc, and is instead more akin to shooting a film than watching one.

Lindsay is amazing to watch. He evokes the casual charm that made Cardiff magnetic to the women he worked with as well as the professional obsessiveness that led him to experiment with prisms and seek to reproduce the textures of a Vermeer or Renoir on screen. Above all, Lindsay’s performance has a humanity that suggests Cardiff’s cinematic memories are accompanied by a spasmodic grasp of reality.

Claire Skinner shifting between Cardiff’s wife and his idealised Katharine Hepburn, Rebecca Night as the carer who becomes his memorialised Marilyn Monroe and Barnaby Kay as the son who turns into Humphrey Bogart and Arthur Miller, also show the pangs of becoming part of someone else’s disordered dreams.” – Michael Billington, The Guardian

“The structure is artful. Rebecca Night reappears as a lustrous Marilyn Monroe, in order to re-enact, word for world, an earlier scene with Jack in which he’d confused his carer, Lucy, with the screen goddess, draped on his casting couch. (Kay is a pompously affronted Arthur Miller). These lapses between precarious present and distorted past take us into the jungle of Jack’s ailing mind, while the doubling and tripling bring home the ache of being mistaken for one of the luminaries in his thronging cinematic memory-bank.” – Paul Taylor, The Independent

‘After the Fall’ in Albuquerque

Arthur Miller’s controversial play, After the Fall, features a thinly-veiled portrait of his marriage to Marilyn (although he always denied this.) A new revival at the Aux Dog Theatre in Albuquerque, New Mexico, directed by James Candy and starring Sheridan K. Johnson, makes the allusion explicit – even putting Marilyn on the playbill, which is bound to attract the curious.

“‘It is no secret that Quentin is Miller and Maggie is Monroe,’ says Cady, ‘even though Miller himself insisted it was no more biographical than anything else he wrote. The presence of the character Maggie is so clearly the ultimate female sex symbol and icon that was Marilyn Monroe, his ex-wife. She had died two years before the play opened in 1964.’

In the play, Quentin is courting Holga, a German woman still struggling with her experiences during World War II. He questions his own ability to truly connect with the women in his life as he tries to decide the future of their relationship. The scenes with Holga take place in the present. However, the memories of his mother, father, brother, clients, partners and friends reassert themselves in his mind where most of the play occurs. They recede and re-emerge as Quentin proceeds from one thought/memory to another in a stream-of-consciousness. The most prominent memory is of his second wife, Maggie, and the dissolution of their marriage. Quentin understands that after the fall from Eden, no one is innocent and, finally, all we are left with are questions – and memories that haunt us forever.

The play implies a search for understanding of ‘responsibility’ toward Monroe, of her inability to cope, and of his failure to help her. ‘But more than that’, says Cady, ‘he must deal with the ultimate question – Can anyone ever help anyone, anywhere—anymore?'”

Marilyn and Jack Cardiff on the London Stage

Jack Cardiff – the legendary cinematographer who befriended Marilyn on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl – is the subject of a new play, Prism, at the Hampstead Theatre in London, as Holly Williams reports for the Telegraph. The  play is written and directed by Terry Johnson, author of Insignificance – the surrealist fantasy featuring a Marilyn-inspired character, which became a successful movie in 1985 – and Cardiff is played by the popular English actor, Robert Lindsay. Prism runs until October 14 – more info here.

“In a garage in Ely, Cambridgeshire, hangs a portrait of Marilyn Monroe. On it she has written: ‘My darling Jack, if only I could be how you made me look.’ Cardiff called Monroe ‘as near perfect as any cameraman could wish for’. She in turn called him the best cinematographer in the world.

The seed was planted seven years ago, shortly after Cardiff’s death following a struggle with Alzheimer’s. The youngest of his four sons, Mason – a film writer/director, named after James Mason – met Robert Lindsay in a local pub, and as their friendship developed, the actor became fascinated by stories of how Alzheimer’s had suspended Cardiff in his glory days as a cinematographer.

Mason showed Lindsay the garage where the family kept all the film memorabilia they’d surrounded Cardiff with in his final years. And when Lindsay spied that signed portrait – and then heard how the frail Cardiff had become convinced that one young care assistant was, in fact, Marilyn Monroe – he knew they had a show. The pair took Johnson to lunch to discuss writing the script; by pudding, he was convinced too.

Cardiff also adored her, admiring with a cameraman’s eye her beauty. ‘She had a classically sound bone structure,’ he once said. ‘But I had to be careful about her nose, so delightfully retroussé. For if the key light was too low, a blob would show up on the tip.’ Prism shows the pair getting close during a photo shoot – ‘art’, as Cardiff also liked to say, ‘is an intimate thing’, although in reality their relationship probably never went beyond mutual affection.”

‘Some Like It Marilyn’ in Canberra

The sheer number of Marilyn-themed plays being produced around the globe at any given time is astounding. Unfortunately, many seem poorly conceived, so I don’t always mention them here. However, Some Like It Marilyn – a tribute show first staged in 2010, starring Australian actress Lexi Sekuless – could be something special, reports the Canberra Times. (You can book tickets here for this one-off performance on Sunday, September 10.)

“The show features hit songs from favourite Monroe movies including ‘Two Little Girls from Little Rock’ and ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’ from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), and scenes from Bus Stop (1956) and Some Like it Hot (1959). Those who loved her and sometimes loathed her – such as co-stars Jane Russell and Tony Curtis, baseball legend Joe DiMaggio and director Billy Wilder – are quoted and an excerpt from her third and final husband Arthur Miller’s autobiographical play, After the Fall, is featured, building up a picture of a complex woman with a difficult relationship to the stardom she seemed to both crave and dread.

‘When she was married to Joe DiMaggio he wanted her to be Norma Jean [her real name] and she wanted to be Marilyn Monroe – with Arthur Miller she wanted the reverse,’ Sekuless says. ‘So many books have been written about her – I feel everyone wants a piece of her. They all want their filter to be the true one.’

By relying mostly on reported and published words from Monroe and others, and the songs and scenes from movies, Sekuless wants the focus to be on the star’s persona and her talent rather than on what she calls the ‘salacious’ aspects of her life such as her relationship with US president John F. Kennedy or the conspiracy theories surrounding her death.”

‘Bus Stop’ Stage Revival in Maine

Another stage revival of William Inge’s Bus Stop has just opened at the Acadia Repertory Theatre in Somesville, Maine. Director Andrew Mayer outlined the differences between the play and Marilyn’s 1956 movie to readers of the Mount Desert Islander.

“‘This play is as good an American play as has ever been written. It depicts characters one doesn’t often see on the theater stage: cowboys, a nightclub singer, waitresses and a bus driver, Kansans, Missourians, Montanans. It shows them in their own world, with all the dignity, flaws and humanity of each on full display. And while the play has the (highly unconventional!) love story between Bo the cowboy and Cherie the nightclub ‘chanteuse’ at its heart, it gives plenty of stage time to the rest of the characters as well. Inge’s genius is in making these characters compelling and recognizable to everyone, while keeping the play deeply rooted in its Midwestern milieu. It’s not just a masterpiece, but a distinctively American masterpiece!'”

Saturday Night With Marilyn in Moraga

Marilyn at the Golden Globes, 1962

Filmgoers in the San Francisco Bay area will celebrate Marilyn’s life and career at Moraga’s Rheem Theatre on Saturday July 15, for an evening including movie clips, Marilyn Wines, a lecture by Derek  Zemrak and music from Patti Leidecker.

‘Bombshell’ Headed for Broadway

After a hugely popular, one-off benefit performance in 2015, plans to bring Bombshell – the fictitious Marilyn musical from NBC’s Smash – to Broadway for real are now taking shape, as Greg Braxton reports for the L.A. Times.

“Craig Zaden and Neil Meron, the award-winning producing team behind the Oscar-winning Chicago and NBC’s live versions of The Sound of Music and The Wiz, are joining forces with NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Green late for the project, with an opening date yet to be determined. Greenblatt has extensive Broadway experience, producing the musicals Something Rotten! and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.

Created by Theresa Rebeck, who also served as showrunner, Smash premiered in 2012 to critical praise. The Times’ Mary McNamara called it a ‘triumph.’ But after a strong start, the series ran into rough creative waters, including exaggerated side plots and strange song breaks. Ratings fell. When Smash returned for its second season, Rebeck and a number of characters were gone. But Smash still was canceled.

The appetite for the show has never died, Zaden said, and has found new life on Netflix. ‘It’s more popular now than when it was on the air.'”

Marilyn Meets Zorro … In Galway

Plays about Marilyn are increasingly popular, though often of dubious quality. But Leonor Bethencourt scores top marks for originality, using Marilyn’s brief stopover at Shannon Airport (while flying home to New York after filming The Prince and the Showgirl in November 1956) as a starting point for a zany one-woman show, as Charlie McBride reports for the Galway Advertiser. In Marilyn Monroe Airlines: Always Late and Unreliable! she plays Marilyn-worshipping air hostess Zocorro. You can catch the play at the Cava Bodega restaurant on April 20-21, as part of the Galway Theatre Festival.

“Zoccoro is the sole crew member of an accident-prone budget airline, one who proudly perpetuates the spirit of Marilyn Monroe. Simmering with raw emotions, this is a comedy about flying and reaching for the stars. How can Zocorro, masked Spanish ingénue, sustain the teasing sensuality demanded by the aviation business? Marilyn has the answer…

‘Zocorro is like a female Zorro, she wears a mask like his,’ Bethencourt tells me. ‘She’s from a small village in Spain and finds herself in different situations. In my previous show, Zocorro – Rose of Tralee, she infiltrated that contest by pretending to have Irish roots and this show is a different adventure in which she is committed to perpetuating the memory of Monroe on a budget airline.’

Bethencourt herself is Hispano-Irish, with her mother hailing from Strabane and her father from Madrid where she grew up. She expands on the character of Zocorro: ‘As a child, Zocorro took an overdose of iron tablets and was taken to hospital. Doctors were all around her, and she realised then how to be the centre of attention which is a big factor with her. Being an air hostess everyone has to listen to her so she enjoys that attention and also the safety and comfort of the passengers depends on her.’

‘She relates different adventures that happened with Marilyn Monroe Airlines– it has a lot of security issues, there is a good chance at any time that things will go wrong. The nervousness passengers might feel on the flight is like how Marilyn Monroe was unable to leave her trailer during film shoots because of stage fright.'”

UPDATE: You can read a review of the show here.

Marilyn: A Life On the Stage

Marilyn at the Actors Studio, 1955 (Photo by Roy Schatt)
Marilyn at the Actors Studio, 1955 (Photo by Roy Schatt)

In a thinkpiece for The Conversation, Margaret Hickey – a professor at Australia’s LaTrobe University, which ran an extension course on MM last year – asks an intriguing question: Would Marilyn’s career (and life) have been different if she had acted on stage?

“[The] drawn out Method approach is more conducive to a theatre production (which it was originally designed for) than a busy film set. The intimacy of the method, the focus on self, appealed to Monroe and she threw herself into it.

Much is made of Monroe’s drug addiction and famous lack of punctuality (few consider the similar behaviour of her co-stars and directors). But with the smaller budgets and longer rehearsal time of the theatre productions, she may have been less prone to the crippling anxiety attacks she increasingly suffered from.

Other stars of the era who managed the transition from ‘sex bomb film star’ to stage actor had a very different trajectory to Monroe. Elizabeth Taylor, Jayne Mansfield and Jane Russell, Monroe’s co-star in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, all grew tired of films that focused mainly on their figures and made the switch to stage.

A small role to begin with, an off-Broadway theatre with her Studio classmates, a lengthy rehearsal schedule – it might just have garnered Monroe the respect she craved.”

2016: A Year In Marilyn Headlines

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In January, exhibitions featuring Milton Greene and Douglas Kirkland’s photographs of Marilyn opened in London and Amsterdam. In New York, the Museum of Modern Art paid tribute to Marilyn’s choreographer, Jack Cole. Also this month, James Turiello’s book, Marilyn: The Quest for an Oscar, was published. And Edward Parone, assistant producer of The Misfits, died.

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In February, Marilyn ‘starred’ with Willem Dafoe in a Snickers commercial for the US Superbowl. Monroe Sixer Jimmy Collins’ candid photographs were sold at Heritage Auctions, and the touring exhibition, Marilyn: Celebrating an American Icon, came to Albury, Australia.

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Another major Australian exhibition, Twentieth Century Fox Presents Marilyn Monroe, featuring the collections of Debbie ReynoldsScott Fortner, Greg Schreiner and Maite Minguez Ricart – opened at the Bendigo Art Gallery in March. And Barbara Sichtermann’s book, Marilyn Monroe: Myth and Muse, was published in Germany.

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In April, a special edition of Vanity Fair magazine – dedicated to MM – was published. A campaign to save Rockhaven, the former women’s sanitarium where Marilyn’s mother Gladys once lived – was launched. And actress Anne Jackson – wife of Eli Wallach, and friend to Marilyn – passed away.

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In May, Marilyn graced the cover of a Life magazine special about ‘hidden Hollywood’, and Sebastien Cauchon’s novel, Marilyn 1962, was published in France. Cabaret singer Marissa Mulder’s one-woman show, Marilyn in Fragments, opened in New York, while Chinese artist Chen Ke unveiled Dream-Dew, a series of paintings inspired by Marilyn’s life story. The remarkable collection of David Gainsborough Roberts was displayed in London. Finally, Alan Young – the comedian and Mister Ed star, who befriended a young Marilyn – died.

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June 1st marked what would be Marilyn’s 90th birthday. Also in June, New Yorkers were treated to an Andre de Dienes retrospective, Marilyn and the California Girls. An exhibition of the Ted Stampfer collection, Marilyn Monroe: The Woman Behind the Myth, opened in Turin, Italy. A new documentary, Artists in Love: Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, was broadcast in the UK, while Australia honoured Marilyn with a commemorative stamp folder, and genealogists investigated Marilyn’s Scottish ancestry.

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In July, the birthday celebrations continued in Marilyn’s Los Angeles hometown with tributes from painter David Bromley, and another Greene exhibition. A new musical, Marilyn!, opened in Glendale. Rapper Frank Ocean appeared alongside a Monroe impersonator in a Calvin Klein commercial. And Marni Nixon, the Hollywood soprano who sang the opening bars of ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’, passed away.

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August 5th marked the 54th anniversary of Marilyn’s death. Also this month, it was announced that Seward Johnson’s ‘Forever Marilyn’ sculpture may return permanently to Palm Springs. April VeVea’s Marilyn Monroe: A Day in the Life was published, and Marilyn’s role in Niagara was featured in another Life magazine special, celebrating 75 years of film noir.

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In September, Marilyn: Character Not Image – an exhibition curated by Whoopi Goldberg – opened in New Jersey. Terry Johnson’s fantasy play, Insignificance, was revived in Wales. Two locks of Marilyn’s hair were sold by Julien’s Auctions for $70,000. And author Michelle Morgan published The Marilyn Journal, first in a series of books chronicling the Marilyn Lives Society; and A Girl Called Pearl, a novel for children with a Monroe connection.

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In October, Happy Birthday Marilyn – a touring showcase for the collection of Ted Stampfer – came to Amsterdam, while Marilyn: I Wanna Be Loved By You, a retrospective for some of her best photographers, opened in France. Marilyn Forever, Boze Hadleigh’s book of quotes, was published. Marilyn’s friendship with Ella Fitzgerald was depicted on the cult TV show, Drunk History. And on a sadder note, photographer George Barris, biographer John Gilmore, and William Morris agent Norman Brokaw all passed away this month.

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In November, Marilyn’s ‘Happy Birthday Mr President‘ dress was sold for a record-breaking $4.8 million during a three-day sale at Julien’s Auctions, featuring items from the David Gainsborough Roberts collection, the Lee Strasberg estate, and many others including the candid photos of Monroe Sixer Frieda Hull. Also this month, comedienne Rachel Bloom spoofed ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ in a musical sequence for her TV sitcom, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. And Marilyn Monroe: Lost Photo Collection, a limited edition book featuring images by Milton Greene, Gene Lester and Allan ‘Whitey’ Snyder, was published.

05E065FF-9E98-4677-8946-85623619BBF3-2686-0000014DE181D724_tmpFinally, in December the EYE Film Institute began a Marilyn movie season in Amsterdam. The Asphalt Jungle was released on Blu-Ray by Criterion. And actresses Zsa Zsa Gabor and Debbie Reynolds both passed away.