Warning: contains strong language, drug and sexual references.
There’s no denying any of that.
There’s also no denying the fact that this is a searing psychological profile with no less than a full-throated performance by Tiffany Barton. She completely inhabits the character of June, a former New York opera singer now stricken at the thought of leaving her apartment.
Barton is fearless in exploring all the complexities of this larger than life diva; from the grotesque to the outrageous; the flat out funny to the poignant; often with devastating self-reflection. It’s in your face, immediate and compelling. What a joy to witness an actress not only embrace but trumpet all the jagged little edges, contradictions, hopes and fears of a character so thoroughly. June is, in part, based on a real person so this bleeds with authenticity.
The show literally jumps out at you and at first I was taken aback. There’s a certain shock value as we initially meet June but various story strands slowly emerge in this meticulously crafted monologue. Two great love affairs come to the fore – one with June’s husband Manny; the other with the opera and performance itself. The discovery that one largely destroys the other adds to a sense of pathos. But make no mistake; there is a fierce determination here to enjoy all that life has to offer, with every lump and Tosca inspired orgasm!
Underpinning this is June’s relationship with her father who will abandon the young girl and be absent through key moments of her life. Then there’s the reason why June can’t leave her apartment that is potent in its understated recounting. It will resonate with any artist who aspires to greatness.
All these strands are woven together amidst moments of manic energy as June dresses up, sings along to her beloved opera, laments the effect of age on her looks, consumes pills hidden in a teapot, and happily submits to the attention of ‘Mr Buzzy’, a formidable looking vibrator. Tellingly though, it’s the quieter moments that pack the biggest wallop – Barton and director Helen Doig aren’t afraid to let us observe June who becomes increasingly bizarre in appearance. Those moments of stillness and sense of vulnerability are quite special.
There are two clever devices to allow the character to ‘perform’ and share her memories – one, improbably, is a stuffed cat called Eugene, smothered to death by a drunken June; the other, an ingenious puppet of Manny made of cardboard boxes and rollers. Again, having Barton ‘impersonate’ Manny, become the innocent child who misses her Daddy, or admonish her dead cat allows for changes in rhythm and pace that keep this unpredictable and enthralling.
The simple telephone injects a note of dread as a symbol of the outside world (and the past) that June seemingly craves to reconnect with but is paralysed at the very thought of. Indeed, audio cues are an important component from the strains of opera to amusingly salacious lyrics to prompts to snap June in and out of moments of self-reflection.
This is a well written, well directed and beautifully crafted piece of theatre with a memorable performance that sponsored a most interesting discussion afterwards in the lobby. Highly recommended.
Diva was written by and stars Tiffany Barton and is directed by Helen Doig with puppets, set and costumes created by Cherie Hewson and sound by Max Porotto. Perfectly suited to the intimate black box theatre upstairs at Spare Parts Puppet Theatre in Fremantle, it runs until 1 November as part of the Fremantle Festival.