Theatre people are much more superstitious than film people and Bette Davis began her career as a dancer and actor on the Broadway stage. It wasn’t until she headed to Hollywood in her early 20’s that she took the path to become the film actor we know from her one hundred movies.
The QUEEN BETTE we see at The Old 505 Theatre during Mardi Gras is definitely that brittle, elusive star at the apogee of her power but the rituals meant to attract good luck are still part of her makeup. Particularly rainy nights as a sign of a good show to come. The heavens opened tonight just before we arrived at the venue but there could have been a blizzard or sandstorm because this show, with this kind of performance, has no need of luck.
This world premiere production is devised by Peter Mountford and Jeanette Cronin from an original idea by Peter Mountford. We meet Bette Davis (Jeanette Cronin) in a crockery breaking tantrum on the set on her Queen Elizabeth film co-starring with Errol Flynn.
Davis is the harridan we expect to see: scenery chomping is the expectation. What we experience instead is the girl who was a dancer. The woman who loved and admired her fiercely proud mother, Ruthie. The bright eyed child who sat with her abandoning father blinking up at the stars only to be told that there were so many of them that she was inconsequential.
Jeanette Cronin looks uncannily like Bette Davis and has obviously worked hard at her crafting of the makeup, voice, mannerisms and attitude. But her performance is much more mysterious than just verisimilitude. She has distilled, and can share, an essence. Much of her ability to portray Davis is in the physicality of the character she has created.
The dancer is there in the way Cronin stands with one foot raised on a toe, the show pony flourishes as she ranges around the set and in the silences as she pulls her slight frame up into either attack or defence. Her performance is a mesmerising tour-de-force as she speaks directly to her audience. Are we confidants, are we reporters, are we simply observers of a life we think we know?
For all her dance training though, Davis was a Movie Star for over 50 years. It was a life well lived … long, tragic and eventful. For me, the script does not really successfully resolve where you start and where you finish when you attempt to capture a life story. But like a glossy studio-created photograph album, it’s about how the images touch the collective consciousness of the viewer. Some of them are eerie.
When Cronin takes out her pincurls, combs her hair in the mirror and turns back to us… Margot Channing is there. The use of the simple, limited lighting to create close-ups and long shots, black and white or colour shots is a metaphor for the creation of the legend.
It’s, quite simply, the stellar transportation of an audience through a brilliant performance and you need to see it in this small, intimate venue before it is swept onto a larger stage. Rain or shine, grab a ticket if you can.
QUEEN BETTE, presented by G.bod Theatre and The Old 505 Theatre with some fundraising through Pozible as part of the Gay and Lesbian Festival 2015 plays until March 15th.
For more about Queen Bette, visit http://www.mardigras.org.au/events/queen-bette/
Editor’s Note:- It is worth noting that Jeanette Cronin also played Bette Davis in Anna Crawford’s production of John Misto’s play DARK VOYAGER that played the Ensemble Theatre during August of last year.