In 1902, The Story of Mary MacLane was published. The Story was, actually, three months’ worth of diary entries written by a precocious Montana teenager – Mary MacLane – and not so much a 'story' as a cathartic outpouring of thoughts and feelings: the collected contemplations and complaints of a 19-year-old girl who felt tragically misunderstood. Much of it feels like a 19-year-old girl could have written it yesterday.
In fact it was exactly yesterday and 111 years ago – the 12th of April, 1901 – that MacLane wrote, in her impeccable handwriting
: “I have never a tender thing in my life. The sand and barrenness has never a grass-blade. I want a human being to love me. I have need of it. I am starving to death for lack of it.”
MacLane, as you can no doubt see, had a way with words. Now, screen starlet and playwright Bojana Novakovic has had her way with MacLane’s words. Written by Novakovic from MacLane’s own writings and directed by Tanya Goldberg, The Story of Mary MacLane by Herself is, like the original diary, not merely a biographical retelling of her life and times – though it certainly gives the audience a strong sense of both. What it’s more interested in is exploring MacLane’s inner life. Which appears to have been MacLane’s favourite subject anyway.
MacLane (Novakovic) is unveiled in the manner of a carnival sideshow attraction – in bare feet and silky undergarments and hair like a mad woman’s – and proceeds to rant, rave and recollect. No subject is off limits. Even as she scrubs her feet with pumice stone, she sermonises on marriage, God, politics, morality, men and women (and the fucking thereof), food (she has a particular fondness for a certain starchy vegetable) and death (including her own). In a delicious sequence of metatheatrics, Novakovic even has MacLane rail against the show itself.
There’s also quite a bit of rumination on the fickle realities of fame, made all the more compelling conveyed by a so-hot-right-now movie actress
with a bona fide rock star in a supporting role. Slick-haired erstwhile You Am I frontman Tim Rogers, as the Musician, brings actual rock’n’roll credentials to the MacLane hootenanny. With Andy Baylor on violin and Mark Harris on double bass, Rogers belts out several toe-tapping, heel-stomping new numbers, 50s-style Godin 5th Avenue archtop acoustic guitar in hand. The Musician, it emerges, is offering MacLane more than just musical backup – but she’s too caught up in her own devilish fantasies to take much notice.
The whole affair is as delightfully mad and chaotic as MacLane’s mind, though this does mean it feels like the show is freewheeling for some time before it hits its dramatic stride. At least MacLane/Novakovic acknowledges that she’s flaunting traditional dramatic structure when she does so – it’s that kind of show.
And, of course, it’s marvellous seeing this pair of charismatic performers strut their stuff in Griffin’s intimate Stables Theatre. Rogers, in case you didn’t receive the memo, plays a bloody mean guitar. If anything, he is so in his element in the musical moments of the show – smiling at a tastily dissonant chord, bantering with the audience as if at a pub gig – that it’s almost inevitable that he looks relatively naked when the music stops. Novakovic, who is near enough to being actually naked for much of the show, has no such problem. She portrays both the boisterousness of spirit and – with her perpetually sad eyes and distinct lack of Hollywood vanity – the battered heart and essential fragility of MacLane. It’s just a shame – and this is partly due to the way the Story unfolds – that the pair fail to generate heat together.
The Story of Mary MacLane by Herself is more than just a lively introduction to a fascinating historical figure. Yes, MacLane was corseted by the time in which she was living: even as she goes about baring her soul, she (and the pint-sized Novakovic) gets squashed and compressed and straitjacketed into layer upon layer of period dress. But, as a trek through the “sand and barrenness” of loneliness, The Story of Mary MacLane by Herself is timeless and quite beautiful stuff.
The Time Out interview with Bojana Novakovic