Theatre review: The Story Of Mary MacLane By Herself

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Dear Dad

There is something instructive in this startlingly resonant adaptation of Mary MacLane’s debut memoir, The Story of Mary MacLane. Holding up a mirror to the 21st century zeitgeist of narcissism, Bojana Novakovic’s version highlights our innate contradictions and warns against any stubborn proclivity to see the glass as perpetually half-empty. As Tanya Goldberg’s exquisite direction augments MacLane’s pulsating aura, deftly creating space for her irrepressible soul, one feels the size of the protagonist’s solipsism. And while chorus Tim Rogers’ ultra-modern electric guitar does seem somewhat incongruous at the turn of the last century, Campion Decent’s dramaturg is not lost on Anna Cordingley’s excellent 1900s period set and period costume — and yes, underarm hair included.

Born in 1881, Mary MacLane was a Canadian-American writer whose audacious revelations about her innermost yearnings earned her reverence and obloquy of equal measure. In 1902, her wildly successful first memoir unveiled a sensuous young woman with a compulsion for self-expression and an unrelenting quest for a happiness that always seemed elusive. Ferociously introspective yet shamelessly conceited, Mary was to declare herself utterly unique and a genius for whom the world could find no equal.

Novakovic, who inhabits the role of MacLane almost like her alter ego, delivers The Story of Mary MacLane By Herself in a fascinating blend of fact and fiction. Here, MacLane has agreed to share her story on Malthouse’s Beckett stage from when she was 19 years of age to her indeterminate death some indeterminate number of years later. With a wilful air, she criticises her late father who uncannily could love no other but himself, blames her stepfather whom she says gambled her college education away and scoffs at her benighted mother and three siblings. With lines in the famous memoir tripping delightfully from her lips, Novakovic’s MacLane laments the tedium of a vapid life.

The production then takes us via Rogers  — accompanied by his brilliant band of violinist Andy Baylor and bass player Dan Witton — to glimpses of MacLane’s little-known bohemian life following her first book’s runaway success. In song or in verse, like a loyal acolyte, he presents her as a compelling young woman chosen by the likes of Pulitzer, inspired the ilks of Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf and adored by (most) men in her life.

Nevertheless, the restless MacLane prefers to wallow in self-inflicted despair, choosing for example to focus on the failure of her later books rather than her achievements in a lustrous advertising career, choosing to feel hurt from public criticisms than to be encouraged by glowing reviews. In her desperate longing for happiness, she rants at people who put her up on a pedestal, turns her back on religion and craves for the devil’s affection.

Openly bisexual, MacLane romanticises an Annabel Lee with mawkish tenderness as she regards the men she has made love to like trophies of her sport. Despite suffering pain from abuse by the “literary man”, she hungers for the “perfect villain”, the cruel Napolean in the same inexplicable way that the genius bemoans her own intellectual vacuum.

In a striking masterstroke — perhaps to exemplify the convergence of MacLane’s story with many of ours — whereby the play fuses theatrical drama and off stage reality, MacLane’s notebook becomes Novakovic’s journal and MacLane’s petulance is confused with the actor’s recalcitrance.

In the same way that MacLane weaves poetic fantasy about drowning to her death, Novakovic imagines her subject’s encounter with the “kind devil”. And when she finds herself rejected by him and everyone else, Novakovic’s MacLane realises that her inner solitude has materialised into physical loneliness.

This is a thoughtful production that not only draws acute parallels between MacLane’s inner milieu and our own desires, it reminds us, in our (blogger, Facebook, Twitter) search for surreal fame and pseudo-popularity, that real happiness is all around us and the glass, if not half full, is certainly not half-empty.