Finborough Theatre, London – until 7 July 2018
After a successful production last year with Arthur Miller’s Incident At Vichy, director Phil Willmott returns with another one of Miller’s plays – this time one of his lesser-known works. Paradoxically, it is of more possible interest than the rest of his canon…
Most people know about the difficulties that were occurring in Marilyn Monroe’s life – especially the last few years of her career. Monroe was all too aware of the flip side of her public image and desired respect. In light of this, it’s not surprising that in her pursuit of the company of esteemed artists and writers, she would marry playwright Arthur Miller.
However, for many reasons, their marriage was under a lot of strain and their time together on the set of The Misfits marked the nadir of their relationship. In 2004, Finishing The Picture – Miller’s last play – premiered in Chicago. Because of its semi-autobiographical nature, it’s almost impossible not to see parallels between certain characters, and events in The Misfits and Twentieth Century Fox at that time.
Kitty, the star of the film is holed up in her hotel room, while various people at the studio are at their wits’ end. Before the day’s filming can begin, various people involved with production discuss the feasibility of it actually happening: Kitty’s personal assistant Eden Meyers (Rachel Handshaw), head of the studio Philip Oschner (Oliver Le Sueur), director Derek Clemson (Stephen Billington) and cinematographer Terry Case (Patrick Bailey). Also present (but not particularly welcome by the other characters) is Kitty’s acting instructor Flora Fassinger (Nicky Goldie), plus Kitty’s estranged husband Paul (Jeremy Drakes) who has written the screenplay.
While the play on the surface is about coaxing Kitty to the film set, each of the characters represents aspects of Hollywood and people in Monroe’s life who all have different agendas. As someone originally from the trucking business, nascent producer Philip hasn’t assimilated Hollywood’s ‘BS’ and takes whatever’s said with a pinch of salt. However, he’s sensitive enough to recognise that there are a lot of ‘alpha personalities’ – or at least inflated egos – floating about.
As part of Monroe’s quest for respect and self-refinement, she attended the prestigious Actors Studio in New York, which was run by Lee Strasberg. (It must said that for Monroe as the most famous actress in the world to go ‘back to school’ to improve herself showed a humility and fearlessness that she’s seldom credited with.) Having the utmost respect for him, Monroe took on Strasberg’s wife Paula as her acting coach. Depicted as ‘Flora’ in the play, Paula is less concerned about acting as she is with perks such as personal limousines and her status as a ‘gatekeeper’ to Monroe – much as the clergy of old had sole ‘access’ to ‘God’.
Derek doesn’t appreciate Flora’s role as ‘intermediary’ (who by accident or design, perennially undermines his authority on the set). However, while Kitty is susceptible to the adverse effects of sleeping pills which ‘help’ with her insomnia, it’s indirectly inferred that Derek has a ‘habit’ of his own. Interestingly, Derek is indignant because he thinks Philip compares his behaviour with Kitty’s. He’s functioning, yes, but he has a ‘habit’, which is an uncomfortable thought for Derek.
Terry’s debate between Hollywood movies and ‘arty’ European movies is topical in its own right. But the way he refers to Monroe/Kitty as “a great piece of ass” is evocative of Jack Woltz (John Morley) in The Godfather, and says so much about Kitty and the ‘purpose’ of women in general in movies.
So what about Paul as Miller’s simulcrum? In some ways he’s not ‘present’ much (literally and figuratively) but then this represents the state of affairs with Miller and Monroe’s marriage. While Paul’s trying to not rock the boat with Kitty, he’s come to the conclusion he can’t reach her. From his perspective, she won’t accept his love because she can’t love herself.
With all this going on, is anybody really on Kitty’s side? Her personal assistant Edna has the purest of motives and genuinely tries to see things from Kitty’s perspective. However, because Edna’s also friends with Paul, it takes great effort to maintain her neutrality and not be cornered into taking sides. While she knows they’re great people in their own right, whether they make each other happy is another matter…
So does this play tell us anything new about the Miller’s marriage? Is Miller’s narrative fair? Or does it come across as a revisionist account? Much of what’s depicted concurs with reports at the time regarding Monroe’s behaviour and the studio’s frustration with her. Of course, there have been other plays that have wholly or in part been about the life of Monroe. The most famous of these is arguably Terry Johnson’s Insignifance, with ‘The Actress’ interacting onstage with other notable figures from the 1950s. Miller instead has Monroe/Kitty remain offstage. She is spoken about throughout, but in the second half she is addressed ‘directly’ – the ‘freestyle jazz’ sound design by Nicola Chang conveying the emotional tone of ‘Kitty’s’ response, if not her exact words…
In many ways, the absence of Kitty’s/Monroe’s voice is what Finishing The Picture is all about. Just like a jigsaw puzzle, the other people in the play with their opinions create a ‘Monroe-shaped hole’, leaving the audience to ‘finish the picture’ and deduce what the real ‘Kitty’ was like.