Unravelling the woman behind the star.
Performing an icon is no easy feat, but if it’s anyone who’s done Bette Davis justice, it’s Christine St. John. Presented by Wag the Dog Theatre for its Asian premiere, St. John performed her solo show Bette Davis On The Edge in Singapore this week, where, channeling Davis into her performance, Davis, on 31st October 1962, recounts her life and times leading up to this fateful day – where she anxiously awaits the reviews of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, a make or break film set to be her the comeback for her twilight acting years.
While ostensibly, Bette Davis On The Edge is a history of classic Hollywood from the 30s-60s, St. John’s script and performance keeps it constantly sharp and entertaining, keeping our attention rapt on her every movement, hanging from every word. Although not the splitting image of Davis, St. John’s tone and mannerisms capture the diva’s characteristics just right, and it feels as though she herself has appeared onstage before our very eyes. Unusually, the performance took place at the Blue Room over at the Projector, an old refurbished cinema that not only was thematically appropriate for this play about a classic Hollywood star, but surprisingly, a venue that was also conducive for a theatrical production, allowing for an intimate experience in the small room that allowed the actress’s every word to reach us, both in terms of audibleness and emotionally.
Through recounts told in chronological sequence, there’s a keen attention to authenticity and detail that keeps the performance sincere and completely believable, where St. John uses her voice alone to paint us a stunning image of the studio backlots of Hollywood, vividly describing the world of the 30s and beyond as we’re filled with the hopes and dreams of a wannabe actress finding herself utterly lost in the glitz and stardom she is surrounded by, or the snarky caricatures of men and women she finds herself surrounded by, each one more entertaining than the last. It helps that St. John namedrops plenty of the biggest stars of the day to add to the glamour, from speaking of Davis’ friendship with Humphrey Bogart, the supposed feud with Joan Crawford, to her conversations with Jack Warner of Warner Brothers himself. Through her performance, St. John elevates Davis to more than a film star – she reveals the fiery spirit in Davis that never went out for a single moment, her commitment to her beliefs and her gung-ho attitude that put her entire career at risk time and time again, always fighting for her rights, for better representation, and ultimately, for her own happiness.
Following her evolution from being a mere prop for an all male casting call (and her subsequent outburst), to her first ‘Oscar’ win, her epic escape to Europe and the subsequent court case (St. John excels here while playing various members of the court), to her last minute substitution in All About Eve (certainly one of the greatest films of all time), we are constantly caught up in this whirlwind of a woman, her life itself akin to a drama playing out in real time. St. John’s coverage of Davis goes far beyond the actress’s film career alone, speaking of her troubled family life, her firm stance in all her beliefs, from wanting to help with Britain’s war efforts even before Pearl Harbour, and always, always insisting only on performing roles she believed in, regardless of whether she is called ‘difficult’ or not.
Bette Davis On The Edge is far more than a show about an actress on the edge of a nervous background, as its title might suggest, but also one that takes audience members on an emotional rollercoaster, fighting the fights Davis did and feeling the plummets and highs of every failure and success, and realizing its thematic relevance even today as Davis is constantly beset by sexism from the boys’ club that is Hollywood.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Bette Davis diehard or a complete newbie to the history of classic Hollywood – Bette Davis on the Edge is a spectacular monodrama and a class fringe theatre act that will leave you reeling from the spunk and fire displayed by St. John in her role, and one that will compel you to go through Davis’s filmography and biography in its entirety after leaving the cinema, convinced that this is a woman worth remembering and honouring for her life’s work.
Performance attended 22/3/19
Bette Davis on the Edge played at the Projector on 21st and 22nd March 2019. For more information, visit Christine St John’s website here.