Prism, a play by Terry Johnson (author of Insignificance), first opened in London in 2017, starring the much-loved British actor Robert Lindsay as an elderly Jack Cardiff, looking back on his glory days as a cinematographer, and the many beautiful women he worked with (including Marilyn, in The Prince and the Showgirl.) This autumn, Prism will be touring UK theatres with Lindsay reprising his role, and Tara Fitzgerald (Brassed Off, Game of Thrones) playing the assistant with whom Cardiff shares his memories.
You can read a full synopsis here, and sample reviews from the London production here. If you’re planning on seeing Prism, it’s playing from October-November in Birmingham, Richmond, Edinburgh, Chichester, Guildford, Cambridge and Malvern – more info on dates and venues here.
Britain’s greatest arthouse filmmaker, Nicolas Roeg, has died aged 90. Born in London in 1928, he began his career in 1947 as a humble tea-boy at Marylebone Studios. By the 1960s, he was cinematographer for Lawrence of Arabia, Fahrenheit 451 and Far From the Madding Crowd.
In 1970, Roeg made his directorial debut with Performance, which starred Mick Jagger and has become a cult classic. Roeg followed it with Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth (starring David Bowie), Bad Timing, Eureka, Castaway, Track 29, The Witches, and Cold Heaven. His final film was released in 2007.
Roeg is also known to Monroe fans for Insignificance, the surreal comic fantasy based on Terry Johnson’s play, and starring Roeg’s then-wife, Theresa Russell, as ‘The Actress’, a character based on Marilyn. It is one of the more successful films to feature Marilyn as a character. The story is set on the fateful night in September 1954 when Marilyn filmed her famous ‘skirt-blowing scene’ on a New York subway grate. Other characters included ‘The Professor’ (Albert Einstein), ‘The Ballplayer’ (Marilyn’s soon-to-be ex-husband Joe DiMaggio, played by Gary Busey.) In an ironic twist, ‘The Senator’, based on Joseph McCarthy, was played by Tony Curtis, Marilyn’s co-star in Some Like It Hot.
Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum reviewed Insignificance for the Chicago Reader:
“Nicolas Roeg’s 1985 film adaptation of Terry Johnson’s fanciful, satirical play has many detractors, but approached with the proper spirit, you may find it delightful and thought-provoking. The lead actors are all wonderful, but the key to the conceit involves not what the characters were actually like but their cliched media images, which the film essentially honors and builds upon … But the film is less interested in literal history than in the various fantasies that these figures stimulate in our minds, and Roeg’s scattershot technique mixes the various elements into a very volatile cocktail—sexy, outrageous, and compulsively watchable. It’s a very English view of pop Americana, but an endearing one.”
When Insignificance got the Criterion Collection treatment in 2011, Rosenbaum revisited the movie in an essay, which he has now posted to his blog:
“Insignificance pointedly doesn’t sort out the differences between fact and fancy; it’s more interested in playfully turning all four of its celebrities into metaphysicians of one kind or another … All this sport, to be sure, has specifically English inflections. These crazed American icons are being viewed from an amused and bemused distance, and much of the talk qualifies as fancy mimicry.
‘I didn’t write Insignificancebecause I was interested in Marilyn Monroe,’ [Terry] Johnson avowed in a 1985 interview with Richard Combs for the Monthly Film Bulletin (August 1985). This film occasioned an extensive rewrite and expansion of the original by Johnson, but even then he couldn’t be sure whether or not he’d ever seen The Seven Year Itch … One perk of his lack of interest in Monroe is complicating and confounding the popular notion of her as a dumb blonde — a stereotype that she’d helped to create herself — in order to shape and justify his outlandish plot.
The play stays glued over its two acts to Einstein’s hotel room. The film adds crosscutting and incidental characters … The new locations include not only the Trans-Lux Theater, but also a bar where McCarthy and DiMaggio nurse their separate grudges, and the shop where Monroe buys her demonstration toys. Perhaps the most significant additions are the brief, telegraphic, and sometimes cryptic flashbacks pertaining to the respective youths of Monroe, Einstein, and DiMaggio, and last but not least, the Elephant in the Room, the H-Bomb itself — which one might say puts in a crucial, last-minute appearance as the celebrity to end all celebrities, dwarfing and making irrelevant all of the others.”
The first London revival of Terry Johnson’s Insignificance in 25 years has just opened at the Arcola Theatre, running through to November 18. Here’s a selection of quotes from the first-night reviews:
“The case for a revival of Terry Johnson’s flight of fancy on the nature of fame is clear. More so than in 1982, when Insignificance was written, the worlds of celebrity and politics have elided. Fame is political, and the most powerful politicians are the ones with the most followers.
That’s not to say that David Mercatali’s revival is a big, hammer-you-over-the-head Trump metaphor. Its significance is more subtle than that: everyone’s a bit scared and messed up, whether you’re Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe or just some random on the street.” – The Stage
“Alice Bailey Johnson is super as Marilyn, intellectually hungry, frustrated as an artist and a woman, the carapace of confidence cracking to show the fragile self-esteem as her voice goes from the sexualised Little Bo-Peep tones to that of a woman trying to make her way in a man’s world under the most male of male gazes. That element of the play shouldn’t be relevant 60 years on from the time in which it is set and 35 years on from its writing – alas, of course, it very much is.” – Broadway World
“Monroe becomes the centre of David Mercatali’s production, lending it a feminist bent, and Alice Bailey Johnson (daughter of the playwright) artfully suggests the way she slips into a constructed identity with coy shoulder-shimmies and flirtatious raised eyebrows. Her legacy, perhaps, is to leave an imprint on her gender – still out-influenced 60 years on.
Mercatali’s production never finds the requisite slipperiness. Since Max Dorey’s suite is so flimsy and fake – its walls wobbling with every knock on the door, its window looking out onto the Arcola’s brick wall – we’re never allowed to forget that this is a fiction being performed. That brings the impersonations into view, instead of the personalities, only serving to up our scepticism. Johnson’s play needs the opposite: a way of persuading us of its possibility until we submit to a fantasy that’s too tantalising to resist. Without that wooziness, it seems strangely flat – a stage show, little more – and so loses the lightness this fancy needs to take flight.” – What’s Onstage
“Alice Bailey Johnson expertly captures the essence of Marilyn – her breathy voice, her star quality and her aspiration to be taken seriously, while Simon Rouse is spectacular as the awkward academic, who is baffled yet intrigued to find the movie goddess bursting into his bedroom in the middle of the night. The discussion about the theory of relativity between an eager-to-learn Monroe and a naturally nurturing Einstein is surprisingly joyful. At the heart of the tale is Einstein and Marilyn’s unlikely but believable friendship. Although the setting is fictitious, all audience members will know the four main characters to some degree.
Oliver Hembrough projects DiMaggio’s despair and frustration convincingly, and the way the couple steer Einstein into the role of marriage counsellor adds humour to the sense of desperation. Tom Mannion as the threatening senator Joseph McCarthy is suitably dastardly, especially in his dealings with Monroe. As he manhandles and humiliates the actress who seems unsure of how to respond, it’s shameful to acknowledge that over 60 years later, this behaviour is alive and well in Hollywood.” – Camden New Journal
“This is a play that embraces its surrealism with wanton abandon. Veering between tacky pastiche and weighty meditation – and sometimes both at once – it is something of a curious curate’s egg. The main question that persists is ‘why?’ Why are we being told this tale? The narrative itself seems unsure as to what it is, and this only leads to uncertainty. To borrow from the title, it would be too pejorative and damning to call Insignificance ‘insignificant’, but it stops short of being substantial. It is, however, visually arresting and interspersed with a number of witty, sharp quips to garner a hearty chuckle or three.” – Islington Gazette
“There’s more to Insignificance than a simple rumination on fame and its impact, and it’s these other themes – marital alienation, the intellectual stymieing of women, and yes, the insignificance of celebrity in the face of personal anguish – that this successful production draws out.
Fully deserving of her recent nomination for Best Female by stage awards The Offies, Alice Bailey Johnson initially plays Marilyn with speedily unwinding energy … adding in notes of cold anger when she feels like she’s being patronised and scalding sexuality when she reaches the theory’s climax.
All four main actors are excellent at bouncing off each other and maintaining their distinctive characters through Insignificance‘s many threads, spelling out the misfiring interpersonal dynamics between them with real emotion.” – Hackney Citizen
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.
“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
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.”
A new stage revival of Terry Johnson’s Insignificance (which was famously adapted for the screen in 1985), starring Sophie Melville as Marilyn, is currently playing at Theatr Clywd in North Wales until October 15, reports the Chester Chronicle.
“Insignificance takes four iconic faces of the post Second World War era in America – Marilyn Monroe, her husband, New York Yankees baseball star Joe DiMaggio, physicist Albert Einstein and communist witch-hunter Senator Joe McCarthy – and explores their explosive interaction in an imagined meeting in a hotel room in New York in 1955.
Sophie said: ‘I’m thrilled to wear the white dress and play the part of Marilyn – it’s a dream, it really is. It’s been hard work because it’s the first time I’ve played a character who is a real person.’
‘I’ve tried to take on her quality but at the same time make the part my own rather than try to impersonate her. The main thing was getting the voice right and once I’d got that everything just fell into place.’
The show’s director Kate Wasserberg returns to Theatr Clwyd following her production of [Arthur Miller’s] All My Sons last year.
She said: ‘Insignificance is a play I’ve wanted to direct since I saw it at my local theatre when I was 12 or 13 years old. My dad took me along and thought we were going to see The Kiss of the Spiderwoman but it wasn’t on.
‘Even though I was very young, there are several moments from the play that are seared into my memory. I remember laughing a lot. It’s a play about politics, life, love and the stars. Terry Johnson’s work is incredibly intelligent, it works on several levels at once but, line for line, it’s properly funny. I read his plays and laugh out loud.'”
Lew Baxter gives Insignificance a rave review in the Wirral Globe…
“This latest rather spiffing theatrical production directed by Kate Wasserberg in Mold demonstrates just how on several levels the confrontations and verbal jousting between the protagonists still has potent relevance that surprises and amuses.
It is in many ways an emotional rollercoaster particularly when embracing the emotional fragility and conflicts that shaped the relationship of Monroe and DiMaggio, never mind the manic nature of McCarthy whose demonising of America’s intelligentsia leaves a stain on that country’s contemporary history.
And Einstein, branded a Soviet stooge, was himself vulnerable and is here played with considerable aplomb by Brendan Charleson.
Wasserberg has completely nailed the essence of Johnson’s work, which is enhanced by a really top-notch cast: there is a chemistry that fizzes like a sparkler between all four participants and each has that magnetic attribute that engrosses those watching.
Sophie Melville, relatively fresh out of drama school, is simply sublime as Marilyn … here is – if you’ll pardon the pun – a pitch-perfect portrayal of Monroe’s passionate if rather unsophisticated spouse Di Maggio by Ben Deery.
The play begins, in this instance, with the soundtrack of David Bowie’s ‘Starman’, which under the circumstances is most appropriate … This is the kind of production that emphasises how live, breathing theatre, more so than film, can captivate an audience and keep them gripped to the last fading light.”
As the new year begins, Marilyn-related plays are due to open on both sides of the Atlantic. Insignificance, Terry Johnson’s surreal fantasy about Marilyn and other American icons – which was made into a 1985 film – is being revived by the London-based theatre company, Defribilator, and in keeping with its New York hotel setting, will be staged in a 5-star suite at Langham Place, NYC, for four weeks from February 19.
Meanwhile, Hello Norma Jeane – a comedy by British playwright Dylan Costello, first staged in Chicago back in 2012 – returns home to the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park, London from February 23-March 19. Vicki Michelle, best-known as Yvette in the 80s TV sitcom, ‘Allo ‘Allo, stars as ‘Lynnie’, an Essex grandma with a hidden identity.
Insignificance is a 1985 movie directed by Nicolas Roeg, based on Terry Johnson’s play which imagines a mythic encounter between four iconic figures – based on Joe DiMaggio, Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, and Senator Joe McCarthy (played by Tony Curtis) – and set in a New York hotel room, on the fateful night in September 1954 when Marilyn filmed the ‘subway scene’ for The Seven Year Itch.
Roeg, a British director born in 1928 (just two years after MM), has enjoyed cult success with films including Performance, The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Witches, and is the subject of new documentary, Nicolas Roeg: It’s About Time, to be broadcast on BBC4 on Sunday, June 28, at 10pm.
Bernard Rose has recalled his own collaboration with Roeg on Insignificance in a new interview with Sight & Sound magazine.
“The first thing I did professionally with Nic was make this music video for Roy Orbison’s ‘Wild Hearts Run Out of Time’ for Insignificance. I went to Nashville to shoot some stuff with Orbison. Then it was going to be cut into footage from Insignificance, which is what we did. I had to match the camera style Peter Hannan had used in Insignificance, which was very interesting: I was tracking on something and then suddenly zooming in on somebody’s drink. The cameraman at the time turned to me and said, ‘What are you doing?’ The moment he said that, I thought, ‘I’ve got Nic’s style.’ Not that I make any great claims for that video, but you can see that it was quite intricate to make the camera style run from one element to the other without seeming to jar.”