There’s a handful of actors that I’m willing to get up at some ungodly hour to go and stand outside a box office and wait for day tickets for. Rylance, Gough… and Audra McDonald. There’s a whole load of reasons that I might have been interested in seeing Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill – I mean, if any life is worthy of drama, Billie Holiday’s certainly was. But really? I just really wanted to hear Audra McDonald hear some of my favourite music in the world.
The aforementioned day seats are actually on the stage; Christopher Oram’s set has the bar literally invading the stage, stretching into the wings and into the auditorium. It crashes into the space the way Holiday crashes into the club, and like Holiday, is sort of shabby, peeling – but always aspiring towards glamour. If you’ve ever seen a Christopher Oram set you know what I’m getting at. The front seats at the Wyndham’s have been taken out and replaced with cabaret tables, and the back of the stage is similar. In the middle is the stage for the three-piece band; a pianist, a drummer, and a bassist (Shelton Becton, Frankie Tontoh and Neville Malcolm, respectively.) At the edge of the stage stands a solitary microphone.
First off, the quality of musicianship in this play is astounding. Being so close to those instruments, and watching how those players watch each other is an endlessly fascinating thing. The way they communicate with just a glance, and an instinct and a rhythm. Watching the drummer switch from a stick to a brush and back again and watching how he can manipulate these really very simple implements at such close quarters is sooooo good.
The play itself, by Lanie Robertson, may not be a masterpiece, but it carries the potential for a brilliant performance from an actress, and that’s certainly what we get.
The piece dramatizes one of Billie Holiday’s last gigs. Her performances at Emerson’s were among her last, and it follows the structure of a gig. She sings a number, then tells an anecdote and so on. As the gig goes on, and Holiday gets drunker and drunker (she consumes an alarming quantity of vodka onstage) the anecdotes get more and more inappropriate, and Jimmy, her musical director has to keep reeling her back in. Such was the nature of Holiday’s life and personality that she can drop an aside about being raped at 10 years old – and it’s only one of the worst things that has happened to her.
Holiday, we realise, is seriously unwell. She’s come out of jail, and is struggling to draw an audience. She can only perform with the help of alcohol, we’re told there’s a doctor offstage lest she become overwhelmed (but it’s implied what she’s actually doing offstage is rather less medical.) But this is not immediately apparent; Holiday seems on her game, moving through her first two numbers with ease. There’s a musical break in When a Woman Loves a Man where Holiday looks back at the band, seemingly enjoying the music, and then you realise she isn’t at all – she’s just waiting to be given her cue. She barely knows where she is, let alone what she should be singing.
What Audra McDonald does is no impersonation – frankly, her voice is too strong to replicate Holiday’s exactly. But she fills her voice with Holiday’s tone and phrasing, those scoops that made her seem on a completely different tuning to everyone else, but were still so thrilling to listen to. She has that perfect balance of absolute technique and craft with the danger of a live performer; you wonder what – McDonald and Holiday both – are going to do next, vocally, physically, emotionally… She’s a real live wire on the stage.
I’m not sure if it’s Acting-With-A-Capital-A or if it’s utterly invisible acting. I also don’t care either way. There’s a moment where he pianist tries to get her to sing God Bless the Child before she feels ready to sing it. She is so incensed at being undermined on her stage that she slams the piano shut, narrowly avoiding trapping fingers in the process. All the humour falls away, you become acutely aware of the steel in this woman, and McDonald plays it beautifully.
And that’s what characterises her performance; there’s an absolute strength to her, but it’s surrounded by a body that is disintegrating, and out of it comes this frail, trembling, and suddenly soaring sound. It is the fact that McDonald is as good an actor as a singer that makes it work. Instead of it feeling like a boring biopic, the pure exposition that is associated with one-person shows, McDonald plays it like the perfectly logical ramblings of a drunk/high star at her most desperate, but at the absolute height of her talents. When you sit on stage, you’re privileged to the sight of Holiday in her spotlight, the light cutting through the haze from the gods. The whole thing is lit exquisitely incidentally, shifting from reds and oranges to acid green and back again.
It was Strange Fruit that got to me. I already thought it was a beautiful, if completely horrifying song, but the second that first chord sounds it was like the whole audience took a big breath. As Holiday croons about the “southern trees” and the pretty “pastoral scene,” and as the landscape shifts into “bodies swing” and then the sharpness of “for the sun to rot” in the – by this point – completely silent theatre, the tension builds and builds until that final scoop on the word “crop.” The light falls away and Holiday is left in that spotlight, head turned, seemingly in mourning. It’s no wonder this is the song that forces her to leave the stage – if only briefly.
The show was recorded live in New York – thank GOD – and it is beautifully evocative of sitting in the theatre. I’ve found myself listening to Strange Fruit a lot, actually. Particularly with all the crap going on in the US. Lady Day, it turns out, is quietly but determinedly political. It may well be the only all-black cast in the West End at the moment, for that matter.
Yes, Lady Day is in many ways typical West End fare. It’s not very complicated, it’s not daring formally, or unconventional in its staging, but at its heart is a blistering, titanic performance. And often, that’s enough to make the rest worth it. What could be an unashamed star vehicle (and not the good kind) is given flesh and blood with McDonald’s performance.
Photo by Marc Brenner.