Last night, courtesy of the surprise gift of a friend, we went to see Souvenir, a play being performed at Dunedin's Fortune Theatre. Souvenir was written by Stephen Temperley, a musician, actor and playwright. It began life as a full-scale play (presumably with a large cast), was abandoned, was tried as a one-woman show, and finally morphed around 2003 into the two-hander that was performed last night. This is the first time the play has been produced in New Zealand, so good on you, Fortune, for doing it. Sadly the house was only half-full, which is a pity, because not only is the play good and worth seeing, it's immensely funny and is performed with huge energy by Angela Johnson and Michael Lee Porter.
Johnson plays the incredible widow, Mrs Florence Foster Jenkins, who is convinced that the perfect music she hears inside her head is what she produces for her audiences. She's sadly disillusioned about this, and yet audiences flocked to hear her in her later years when she began putting on charity concerts, first at the Ritz Hotel, and finally at Carnegie Hall. She even made some recordings. Johnson, who in real life looks nothing like the dumpy Mrs J, gives a performance of such warmth and delight that you realise how people were willing to suspend judgement on the woman's singing. In spite of the fact that we know that she sings absolutely awfully - Johnson gives us dozens of samples of this awful singing - she had such resilience and enthusiasm that it was hard to turn her down on her ideas. Johnson adopts something of the chortly tones of the famous TV character Mrs Bucket (pronounced Bouquet) in order to bring her character to life, and gives great emphasis to certain words and lines.
Porter plays the role of pianist Cosmé McMoon. (Yup, that was his name.) He also narrates the story to us, and is onstage the entire play. (Johnson gets brief patches offstage, but for most of those she's whipping out of one costume and into another.) Porter not only has to tell us the story in speech, but sometimes in song (accompanying himself on the grand piano that takes up a good deal of the space) and then has to become Cosmé as he was twenty or so years earlier. Porter is an accomplished pianist, has a pretty reasonable voice, and performs the complex and constantly switching role of appalled pianist, counsellor, comforter, and possibly even substitute son with aplomb. His role is more difficult, because he's the audience's confidante as well, and sometimes is expected to give us the nod and wink while being in the middle of a scene with Foster Jenkins.
It's possible that people with some musical background might enjoy the piece more than those who don't have one, but it's certainly not necessary to know anything much about opera to appreciate the play. (There are a number of popular songs in the play too, mostly played and sung by McMoon.) The actors give every line great value, and milk every bit of comedy out of the script. It would be interesting to see a production of the play which wasn't played quite so much for laughs; I suspect it's possible to do it in an entirely different way. Here, of course, the laughs make the unfunny scenes all the more poignant: there are two strong scenes towards the end of each act in which Mrs Foster Jenkins has brief moments of insecurity about what she's doing. In the first McMoon loses his temper at her inability to see how she comes across to others, and is hurtful. Such is the way in which the script is written and performed that it's Foster Jenkins who we side with; McMoon is absolutely right in what he says, yet somehow we believe in the woman.
The play speaks to all artists, most of whom have an ongoing insecurity about what they're creating in the world. Is it of any real value, or will be forgotten as quickly as yesterday's news? Is the judgement of friends and family true, or does only the judgement of a wider audience count? And are we reading that judgement correctly, or are we interpreting it in the light of our own belief about what we're creating? Many great artists have been ignored in their lifetime and have only come into their own after they're dead. Many artists who seem to hold the stage at present will soon be forgotten forever. Actors in stage plays present something nightly for a week, or a month, or even years, and then nothing of it remains, except memories. Performance is perhaps one of the most ephemeral of the arts: a concert here, a play there, and next day it's as if it had never been. If an audience misses seeing or hearing it, there is no memory of it. And curiously, the videoing of live performances can often be disappointing: they're not big enough, they lack that buzz that the audience contributes.Things that the actors thought they were conveying seem to be flat and banal. Or they may seem so over-the-top that you wonder what the live audience actually thought.
There's no doubt that Foster Jenkins somehow missed hearing what was heard by others. Her recordings testify to this, and she has been hugely mocked and laughed at. But at the end of the play, when McMoon tells us that she died not long after her Carnegie Hall concert (not of a broken heart, as many claimed, but of natural causes), he speaks of the fact that inside her head she could hear the perfect music. And Johnson comes out on stage again at that point, in a dress that is lovely and not foolish (as many of her stage costumes were), and sings Ave Maria so beautifully that it makes your own heart break. Perhaps in heaven Mrs Foster Jenkins sings still, and now performs truthfully what she couldn't achieve in this life.