Femme Fatale (Omnibus Theatre)

Femme Fatale (Omnibus Theatre, Clapham, until October 27th)


An unlikely meeting of two eccentrics during the notorious Summer of Love in 1967 makes for a revealing, provocative and funny show at Omnibus Theatre.

Polly Wiseman’s Femme Fatale imagines what might have happened had Andy Warhol’s muse and Velvet Underground singer Nico met the artist’s would be assassin and activist Valerie Solanas with the pop culture icons sharing beer, rants and revolutionary ideas. Both women appeared in Andy Warhol’s erotic movie, I, A Man, and much of the action takes place in a room while they wait to be summoned to the set.

The result is an intriguing blend of cabaret, cinefilm, music and thought-provoking dark comedy as the 1960s feminist agenda is strikingly reassessed and given a radical contemporary tone.

This three-week run at the Omnibus is part of the Nasty Women season, an all-female mix of relentless theatre-makers exploring how we understand femininity and womanhood. Wiseman’s distinctive new work embraces the challenge with parallels drawn between feminism then and now. The intimate nature of this play makes the venue an ideal setting, allowing only a relatively small audience and leaving little room to escape any breaking down of the fourth wall.

Solanas’ so-called SCUM Manifesto (supposedly standing for Society for Cutting Up Men) is questioned, even as men in the audience are picked on and berated, and the play wants us all to reclaim the idea and the message for today, challenging a system and society created and dominated by men.

The apposite setting is the New York landmark Chelsea Hotel, home to so many notable artists across the years, not just in 1967 when the meeting is placed. Ghosts from the past and future aptly seem to haunt the stage throughout.

Nico (played by Wiseman herself) is the German model, musician, sex symbol and Warhol’s Superstar, who has it all but a growing sense of being manipulated and used causes her to reach for her own destiny. Solanas (Sophie Olivia) is a radical feminist with a traumatic past who becomes an angry and fearless voice in a world barely able to listen.

Wiseman skilfully brings these disparate characters together in a forceful and fiery encounter and there is a tangible sense that such unconventional female visionaries would still have a tough time being truly heard today. The striking contrast (visually and in their convictions) between them makes it all the more fascinating that they could have met and grown in respect for each other.

Her captivating Nico has an energy born of ill-treatment and lack of self-esteem, yet she is not quite the self-destructive drug-taking Godmother of Goth that might be remembered today. Wiseman gives her an indomitable pioneering spirit that Solanas unlocks and releases. It is entirely appropriate that it is her song, rather than Solanas’ forthright feminism, that gives the play its title and there’s something enjoyable about Nico’s trademark harmonium being used alongside a more modern sound to accompany the musical numbers.

As Solanas, Olivia isn’t so much the pre-SCUM radical, bubbling over with paranoid resentment and reactionism, but an altogether more controlled and introspective figure. While the desire to “overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex” remains key, Olivia’s portrayal is more measured, allowing the message to be heard over the propaganda.

If there’s a criticism it is that perhaps the production is a shade too cheery, failing to breathe the fire of the revolutionary beliefs of the women and many like them, and at times there is almost a sense of wry amusement that they haven’t successfully confronted the demons that torment them or the bigger issues in society.

Director Nathan Evans gives the play an existence and importance beyond the imagined meeting, allowing the interaction with the audience and the super-8 film being projected onto a back screen to provide a present-day reference and resonance. There are ways in which the multimedia production reflects Warhol’s own artistic experimentation, not only through the film and sound, but also in Sally Hardcastle’s design, which incorporates Warhol’s infamous Brillo Box artwork.

This offering from the innovative female-led Fireraisers Theatre Company might not offer an ultimate solution, but is satisfying and complete enough to send its audiences away thinking. The call to action for what needs to change in the world for women and stating demands for a new feminist manifesto continues after the performance, with a chance to write thoughts down and pin them to a board or tweet views to @scum2019. Perhaps these powerful responses and demands are even more important than the play itself.

If two women from comparatively recent history can fan the flames and get us all thinking then the universe really is waiting to be cracked open. Femme Fatale cleverly uses an imagined history to rewrite the story for today.

David Guest

Images, Pau Ros

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub