After deciding to feature Judy Garland as an aspect of a performance project in the Autumn term, I came to realise what a tragically fascinating woman she was - and so I was inevitably excited when I heard that End of the Rainbow was coming to the Trafalgar Studios.
Rather than attempting to tell the whole of her life story, the show focuses on Judy's three week engagement at The Talk of the Town in 1969, at both the end of her career and sadly also her life as she died in June of the same year - aged only 47. Flitting between her hotel apartment and her stage, we see Judy's relationships with her fifth husband Mickey Deans, her affectionate pianist Anthony, her audience and also crucially - her drugs.
When most people hear the name Judy Garland the immediate thought is the iconic image of her as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Her face and voice evoking such innocence and yet behind the scenes this was being stripped away. MGM built Judy into a star but also destroyed her as a person. Tracie Bennett as Judy was incredible and heartbreaking - she was alluring as a glamorous persona shown not just by her stage presence in the depictions of performances but in her extravagant personality in the domestic situation of the hotel suite.
Whenever I see an adult acting extremely childishly in a performance there's something that niggles me about it - but it's not that its an annoying performance but rather that you know that its just not right that at the age of 47 - this woman had not had the chance to grow up and into a grounded, mature adult. For 45 years out of her 47 year life she was working and performing - in the spotlight and under pressure. MGM would feed her pills in the morning to keep her alert and to control her weight, and pills in the evening to get her to sleep - a well oiled performing machine if there ever was one. The desperation and dependence was portrayed in such a way that made you reconsider both Judy Garland and also public perception of the "celebrity." There was this childish need to always have her drugs - but also to always have everyone's attention. Even if the thought of performing was excruciatingly painful, the idea of ever stepping away from this lifestyle was shown to be seemingly impossible. This conflict between the idea of true happiness and the necessity of attention and acclaim could be seen in the clashing personalities of the uncaring Mickey Deans in contrast with her traditionally English and witty pianist.
As well as causing a life-long drug addiction, the industry also ruined Judy's self-esteem with executives criticising her appearance daily leading a beautiful woman to see herself as ugly. Hilton McRae as Anthony's tender touch as he applied Judy's make-up and reassured her she was beautiful was paternal and endearing. These addictions and lack of self-esteem led Judy to suffer from depression and attempt suicide. Tracie Bennett's performance of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, pathetically on the floor and on the brink of despair - so longing to regain that innocence and be looked after is what really got me.
What you can learn from Judy Garland's life is this:
- People that are beautiful can think they are hideous - and really believe it.
- If someone is attention seeking, maybe they need it - and maybe they need help. Don't laugh at or dismiss them as "attention seekers" without thinking about what that means.
- Even the most beautiful, talented and successful people can be depressed.
- If you are depressed - get help.
- Avoid destructive people that will only make you worse.
- Listen to the people that love you.
- Don't self medicate. Her case is an extreme example, but if depressed you think drinking will help. Alcohol is a depressant. This does not work.
- Children need to be nurtured, not criticised.
- When you're laughing at a celebrity's mental breakdown ie Charlie Sheen, Britney Spears - remember they are people and they need help, not more cameras in their face or a million people watching them fall apart via twitter for example.
Again, I've linked a review of performance into mental health issues - but to be honest they are so bound up in this show it is hard not to. As well as an emotionally powerful performance, Bennett's vocals were also astounding with an incredible range and closeness to Judy's voice - with that beautiful paradox of power and vulnerability. As much as I love Sheridan Smith and Legally Blonde, I'm quite surprised that Bennett didn't get the Olivier for this performance.
Click here for more information and to book tickets for End of the Rainbow at the Trafalgar Studios - booking until May 21st.