Review: Queen Bette (G.bod Theatre / The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Feb 25 – Mar 15, 2015
Devised by: Jeanette Cronin, Peter Mountford
Director: Peter Mountford
Cast: Jeanette Cronin
Images by Richard Hedger

Theatre review
Heroes are worshiped for their exceptional lives and for their extensive contributions to society. Legends persist through the passage of time, especially when they are trailblazers who provide inspiration and guidance, showing us extraordinary ways to be. Examining how someone leaves a mark on the world, is how we can come to find the meaning of life, for their legacies hold the key to our existential angst. Queen Bette is a biographical tribute to one of the greatest screen sirens of the Hollywood golden age, Bette Davis. The text draws material from Davis’ autobiography and from various interviews she had given, not intending to give an in-depth account of sordid gossip, but to depict a great talent, her brilliant career, and an incredibly formidable drive. Davis’ outspokenness allows for the play’s devisors to assemble a script that is vibrant, funny, and tremendously expressive, and the largely chronological plot is a sensible mechanism to satisfy our need for creating a sense of coherence from fragments of a very big life.

In Jeanette Cronin’s company, the show’s 60 minutes go by in a flash. The performer’s work is more exciting and engaging than anyone can hope for in a role this iconic, and like Queen Bette Davis herself, Cronin’s ability to have us fall in love simultaneously with both actor and character, is sublime. We feel as though suspended in time, watching her genius in action, with all its technical proficiencies, emotional astuteness and physical splendour. Her mastery turns the audience into putty in her hands, captivated and gleeful at every twist and turn she introduces to the theatrical experience that we are subject to. Direction by Peter Mountford is dynamically paced, with unexpected stylistic changes developing between scenes to keep us attentive and fascinated. There is a conscious use of Davis’ words to spark activity, colour and energy on stage, so that the work is more than just the recitation of her admittedly engrossing speeches. Interesting perspectives and commentary are added to the star’s history, and a seemingly endless range of variance is achieved in the creation of her presence, so that we come into contact with a Bette Davis who evolves before our eyes, and who is always capable of surprising us.

Queen Bette may be about a departed film idol, but it keeps its sentimentality firmly in check. There is little intrusion into the personal, only revealing very key events, or situations that have an impact on her work. What we see are her professional achievements, how she had attained them and her basking in many moments of glory. It is not the whole story, but it is how we want to remember a role model, and how we want to tell stories so that there is a basis for emulation, or at least, an indication of our human spirit’s magnitude. Women like Davis, and Cronin, help us envision what success looks like, and their magnificence is a reminder that we too, can be brighter and better. We too can be sovereign.