Underneath the star quality of Marlene Dietrich

Miss Dietrich Regrets is performed by Fiona Ramsay and Janna Ramos-Violante at Auto & General Theatre on the Square, Sandton. (All photos Philip Kuhn)

Miss Dietrich Regrets is performed by Fiona Ramsay and Janna Ramos-Violante at Auto & General Theatre on the Square, Sandton. (All photos Philip Kuhn)

You’re left wondering in this two-hander about Marlene Dietrich: arguably the mother of all European performers, who had the emotional fire and sexual energy to make her queen of entertainment from the Roaring Twenties until 1975, with spicy bits during World War 2. Don’t be misled, though. This play is not about Dietrich the legend.

Rather, it teases open who she was underneath all that star quality.
You find yourself in her cluttered bedroom. It’s 1991. She’s old. She imbibes amphetamines and whisky 20 to the dozen; her legs have no pulse. The sheets are yellow from use and she ferociously, yet vulnerably, claims her independence.   

During her heyday, Dietrich blossomed under the camera and onstage. Switching seamlessly between silent films and talkies, the silver screen and the theatre, she reinvented herself throughout her life. She worked with the popular best and died in 1992 at 90.  

Enter her daughter, Maria (Janna Ramos-Violante). Having grown up in a giant’s shadow, all she ever wanted was to be normal, to fit quietly into the world. Fiona Ramsay takes the eponymous role to a level of authenticity that is impeccable and memorable. This portrayal alone makes the theatre experience worthwhile. 

Propped up in her Art Deco-evocative bed, with everything from a bakelite telephone to a hotplate around her, she exudes husky grandeur, horror and grace reminiscent of Bette Davis in her late films. Ramsay gets into the belly of this harsh old dame, where everything but her tongue is crumbling, with astonishing acuteness.   

Miss Dietrich Regrets fingers ageing’s harsh challenges: waning independence, dulling body and nasty judgments piled upon the conscience of the adult children. The play’s emotional crux centres on the daughter’s wish to place her mother in a frail-care facility, and the mother’s fierce will to hold onto her iconic image until her last gasp. She despises the idea of being subject, as an aged invalid, to the curious gaze of strangers, maybe former fans. But this core gets a little blurred in the often petty mother-daughter acrimony. 

On paper, it’s a fine mix of values, handled by some of South African theatre’s very best. But onstage something is missing, which deadens the work’s fire, making it soporific. 

There are three central problems: First, the work is not well written: its rhythm stumbles, making it feel much too prickly, prosaic and wordy, which reduces its impact.   

Second, the set teeters irrelevantly between being a faded, once lavish bedroom and a film set, containing two tall director’s chairs and harsh studio lights. Perching on either of these chairs and peering down at her mother in her alcohol-soaked, urine-stained and cigarette-ridden bed, Maria attempts to relate to her mother, but her gestures are compromised by her physical position.   

And third, an ambiguity in the set design makes Maria’s circuits walking around her mother’s bed go through the wall. As the work opens, a frame defines the back of the space in which the bed is nested. It reads as the end of the room. It is unsettling to see Maria walking willy-nilly around this space, breaking the illusion every time.   Having said all of that, the give and take between Ramos-Violante and Ramsay is beautifully strong. It’s a pity the play’s structural flaws threaten to overwhelm the exceptional performance it contains.    

  • Miss Dietrich Regrets is written by Gail Louw, directed by Sylvaine Strike and designed by Denis Hutchinson (set) and Margo Fleisch (costumes). It is performed by Fiona Ramsay and Janna Ramos-Violante at Auto & General Theatre on the Square, Sandton until June 27. 011 883 8606 or theatreonthesquare.co.za

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