Edinburgh Fringe 2018
A tense thriller re-imagining the events directly following the discovery of Marilyn Monroe’s body. Seven people argue about what happened, why it happened and what they should do next.
Marilyn Monroe died on the night of 5th August 1962 at her home in Los Angeles, California. Her death was ruled as “probable suicide” by an overdose of the sedative drugs, empty bottles of pills being found near her body.
Like the untimely deaths of other celebrities who had reached a stratospheric level of fame, from Elvis Presley to Kurt Cobain, the death of Marilyn Monroe has been plagued by conspiracy theories since the first media announcement that it had occurred. Over the years, theories have been espoused ranging from her being murdered by the mafia or kidnapped by aliens to her death actually being faked and her still being alive somewhere, probably on a tropical island. One of the more plausible possibilities is the involvement of the Kennedys – Marilyn was famously rumoured to have had affairs with both President John F. Kennedy and his brother Attorney General Bobby Kennedy.
Potential Kennedy involvement is the thread picked up by Guy Masterton and Vicki McKellar in this fascinating new work. Seven people enter the realistic 1950s-style living room set and arrange and adjust vases and other props before taking their seats, ready to show us a story. Marilyn’s housekeeper Eunice Murray, her two doctors – her psychiatrist Dr Ralph Greenson, accompanied by his wife, and her medical doctor Dr Hyman Engelberg (in this production played by writer Guy Masterton, doing a wonderful job stepping in last minute for an actor who unfortunately had to drop out due to an incident with his family), her best friend and press secretary Pat Newcomb, and Rat Pack actor Peter Lawford with his wife Patricia who was also sister to Jack and Bobby Kennedy. They’re all in shock. Marilyn is dead. She’s in the next room. The police haven’t been called yet. Peter needs a drink and Eunice brings champagne – it’s all Marilyn has in the house, apparently.
The tension between Peter Lawford and Pat Newcomb comes to the fore immediately, as she attacks him for drinking champagne when Marilyn’s body is in the next room. The semantics of the language used are unpacked – when Dr Greenson says she was anxious, upset, angry, distressed – are these similar emotions on the same continuum, or do they mean very different things? Which one was she? Blame bounces around the room as the very strange and inconsistent circumstances surrounding Marilyn’s death emerge. Was her body cleaned up and moved? How did Peter know to come to the house, and who has he been talking to on the phone? What was the cause of her death? Was Marilyn pregnant? Was she a communist? Did she know state secrets and write them in her diary?
Peter is clear on one thing – they need a consistent account (or “story”, as Pat says bitterly) to present to the police. There can be no inconsistencies. With the world’s media always ready to pounce and the potential ramifications this could have on American politics, self-preservation becomes the name of the game and Peter is intent on presenting to the others, through a combination of strong-arm threats, murky details and unpleasant logic, exactly what they must say happened. Not only must they say it to the police, they must stick to this version of events until the day they die.
In a stand-out performance, Susie Amy’s Pat is the only person who seems to genuinely care about the truth and Marilyn’s reputation. She just can’t believe Marilyn committed suicide and her despair and frustration is palpable. Oliver Fanworth’s Peter is unpleasant, misogynistic and manipulative, using every method at his disposal to force the others to do what he wants. Fanworth makes Peter intensely unlikeable but never crosses the line into caricature. The conflict between these two strong characters is what drives the action.
After a slow, static start – mainly talking heads with fixed positions around the room – the pace, conflict and tension pick up and the flurry of names, times and details thrown at us highlights exactly how difficult it is to pinpoint exactly what happened, putting us right there in the action just as confused as the characters are (with the exception of Peter, who clearly knows a lot more about what happened than he is letting on).
In the style of 12 Angry Men, this show explores the subjective nature of truth, as “facts” are questioned, skewed and discredited. Who can really testify to Marilyn’s state of mind? As the previously tight-lipped and hard to read Eunice Murray, whose employment with Marilyn has clearly involved a high level of discretion, finally admits certain things, the show seems to offer a conclusion on what might have happened and why everybody involved lied about it.
If you enjoy well-crafted, dialogue-driven theatre in the realist tradition, or you’re a fan of Marilyn Monroe (and aren’t we all?) then this show is a diverting afternoon which will leave you with a lot of fascinating questions and a desire to find out more.