Friday, 5 May 2017
Review Madame Rubinstein
by John Misto
Making Up Is Hard To Do
The name of Helena Rubinstein lives on as a brand, although now owned by L'Oréal. Her story, and that of cosmetics' rival Elizabeth Arden, has recently been part of a flurry of activity with a 2007 documentary, a couple of biographies and a Broadway musical.
Now Miriam Margolyes takes up the cudgels as the heavily accented, flamboyant, battling Madame Rubinstein near the end of her life in a play by Australian writer John Misto.
Her dark hair scraped back, Rubinstein, who was born in Austro-Hungarian Krakow, cultivated an "exotic" look with bright clothes and sparkling jewels while her salon brand had glamour but also retained a severe scientific aura of the medical laboratories where she may have studied in her youth.
The story of the cosmetics' tycoon (and also Australia's first entrepreneur of global fame) making her way in an industry, which like the movie business allowed in enterprising souls excluded from other trades, should make for a rich and fascinating tale..
However the play feels thin and conflicted - pulled between her relationship with her secretary, Irish journalist Patrick O'Higgins (Jonathan Forbes) and Rubinstein's rivalry with Frances Barber's Elizabeth Arden (currently also charted in musical War Paint on Broadway) without any real dramatic storytelling.
Instead it settles into a clichéd two hours filled mostly with apocryphal incidents and the habits of "Madame". Margoyles tries to inject a sense of wit and, towards the end, pathos to the portrait of the make-up pioneer. However the script militates against this, failing to capitalize on hints of something more complex and falling back on stereotypes and gags.
It's a shame because a bit of shrewd digging might have brought about a more orignal concoction - for example, her considerable drive leading to Australian connections and success is reduced to mental scars and memories of alleged sexual abuse by a relative.
The way her make up and salon brand developed, taking cosmetics out of the theatre and whore house and making it a part of a respectable woman's routine, is equally downplayed.
An intriguing reference to later women's lib protests against her personally and the cosmetics' industry is mentioned but despite her own protests that she made women "free", there's no social context. Instead we're treated to exaggerated Yiddishkeit and wilful, some would say psychotic, characteristics rather than a sense of someone who had built up a business from nothing.
An advertising image dominates Alistair Turner's design in director Jez Bond's production which has a cartoonish sketch-like feel with some clumsy scene changes.
There's definitely a bioplay in Helena Rubinstein's life but this piece variously shoehorns her life into every other template, apart from truly investigating dramatically her story. So, despite strong casting, we fear it's a lipstick and casing red/amber light.