Suffolk playwright searches for the unseen Marilyn Monroe
Fifty years after her death, Marilyn Monroe remains one of the biggest movie icons on the planet. There is still huge interest in her life and the mysterious circumstances that surrounded her death.
In the space of 10 years she moved from a bit-part player in The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve to a global superstar in films like The Seven-Year Itch and Some Like It Hot.
She remains a source of global fascination for both men and women. She was a talented actress. Her performances, although frequently tortured, showed a genuine flair for both comedy and drama. Some Like It Hot is frequently named in the Top Ten Films of All Time polls and her performances in Bus Stop and The Misfits show that towards the end of her life she was making huge leaps in her development as a serious dramatic actress.
But it isn’t just her legacy on screen which still draws us to the enigma which is Marilyn. It is her complex off-stage life which continues to fascinate – her tangled love life, her marriages, her affairs, her mental breakdowns, her quest to be a better actress, her battles with the studios and the chronic lateness which eventually led to her being fired from her final film, the prophetically-titled Something’s Got To Give.
Her incident-filled life has been the subject of thousands of books, films and television programmes. Earlier this year My Week With Marilyn earned Michelle Williams an Oscar nomination as the uncertain star, while the hit TV show Smash followed a Broadway producer’s attempts to turn the life of Marilyn into a full-scale musical.
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Now Suffolk playwright and director Lorena Cenci is staging new play All About Marilyn, which explores some of the lesser-known facts about Monroe’s life in an attempt to discover exactly what made her tick.
Lorena is using three different actresses to play Marilyn at various times in her life. Lorena says the project has been a real labour of love and during rehearsals she keeps finding out new information and keeps being re-inspired.
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She said: “I have always been a massive fan of Marilyn. I have got hundreds of books on her, seen her movies over and over again. I have been a huge admirer of hers from a very young age.”
She said the catalyst for her new play was a book called Fragments, which was published a couple of years ago and collected together letters and poems that Marilyn had written in notepads and diaries. Lorena said she felt these very personal glimpses into this world prompted her to try to seek the real Marilyn.
However, the more she looked the more she realised there wasn’t just one Marilyn but a whole raft of different Marilyns, which is what prompted her to cast three actresses in the role.
“Reading the notebooks and diaries you can see that she was a really creative person but you can see from her poems that her mind was very fragmented.
“But there was one letter that caught my eye later in her life. She had been admitted to hospital – this was just after The Misfits – suffering from a possible mental breakdown. There is conflicting stories about whether she knew she had been admitted or not, but upon her release she wrote a letter to her doctor, Dr Greeson, and I thought that this would be a good time to set a play about her.
“The good thing about it was that we know it happened; we know when it happened. There is a lot of documentary evidence about her being admitted but nobody knew what went on inside, so I could make up a story about her stay.
“But, it was important that the play was kept as factually accurate as possible, so there are no wild flights of fancy.”
She constructed the play in stages over the space of a year. Scenes and sequences were written as she came across situations she wanted to include.
“I kept a notebook by my bed and lots of bits of paper – just piling up lots of bits and pieces from her life that I wanted to include. For a long while I wasn’t sure how it was going to fit together but I knew I wanted to explore the areas of Marilyn’s life which many people don’t know about and try and find a way to explore who she was.”
After a year Lorena took herself off for a long weekend and started to assemble all the fragments of scenes and ideas into a coherent structure from which a script could be written.
“I have to say my friend and fellow director Sally Scurrell was a huge help. She forced me to focus my ideas. It was then that I realised that there had to be three different Marilyns – the young Norma Jean, Zelda Zonk, the Marilyn we know from the screen, and the older, quieter Marilyn: the real Marilyn.
“Set in the hospital, the older Marilyn has these alternate Marilyns visit her in her mind. Her story is presented in a way that reflects the fractured nature of her own writing.”
Throughout her life Monroe was concerned about her mental state. She was aware of a strand of mental illness that went through her family. Her mother was committed to a mental asylum when Marilyn was a young girl and she was afraid she was heading the same way.
Lorena believes that after the end of filming of The Misfits, which was swiftly followed by the death of her co-star and childhood hero Clark Gable and the separation from husband Arthur Miller, she swiftly started to go downhill.
“She was admitted to hospital in March 1961 and I think that’s when she started to come apart. That was the beginning of the end. She still had huge ambition. She wanted to move away from film and follow Lee Strasberg’s suggestion that she should try working on stage. But, at the same time, she remained very fragile, very vulnerable.”
When she was fired from Something’s Got To Give for chronic lateness and absenteeism, people believe that something snapped inside.
While her acting mentor, Lee Strasberg, would not be considered an unusual supporting player in a drama about the life of Marilyn Monroe, the appearance of jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald may raise an eyebrow or two.
This is exactly what Lorena wants from her play – to surprise and possibly wrong-foot people who think they know everything there is to know about Marilyn Monroe.
“Marilyn saw Ella Fitzgerald singing in a jazz club and was completely blown away by her voice. She became her champion. She said: ‘This woman has got to be known.’ She approached this top nightclub called The Moccambo to book her but, because she was black, they wouldn’t. They made all this fuss about the club being for whites only and she said: ‘If I come every night for a whole week and sit at the front table, you book her and think of the publicity you will get.’ They agreed to it and Ella has gone on record saying that, from that point on, she never sang in a small jazz club again.
“Interestingly, the more I have researched this, the more I have found that Marilyn was quite political. Not in a stringent way but she was quite firm in her beliefs with regard to how people should be treated and this was way before the civil rights movement gained ground in America. She was quite forward-thinking and that came from her – not because she wanted to make a statement.”
Although the show is a play and not a musical, there are three new songs in the production written by Lorena’s long-time collaborator, Helen Wheatley.
“They are songs which serve the plot rather than stop the action for a musical number. Ella has a song and then there are songs which conjure up the atmosphere of classic Marilyn moments rather than copy them.
“So we have numbers which remind you of Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend and Heatwave without actually being Diamonds or Heatwave.”
This approach of capturing the flavour of Monroe’s personality, rather than doing an impression, is central to the play.
“There can be only one Marilyn. Marilyn was Marilyn. You are on a hiding to nothing if you are looking to do an impression. Besides, what I am after is the unseen Marilyn. I want to know what drove her – what made her who she was. So we get to meet the young Norma Jean and we get to meet the older Marilyn off-camera, looking to better herself while fighting her demons.
“We do get to glimpse the movie Marilyn, the public face of Marilyn if you will, in the form of Zelda Zonk, but we can see that she is not the real Marilyn. She is a creation. She is a performance. She is a character she can inhabit and then leave to one side.
“It is this idea of Marilyn Monroe being three people in one that really fascinates me. I think that to some degree she was probably schizophrenic – that’s why I have her with all these different personas in her head.
“Each one of the Marilyns has its own persona, which is why it’s important to have three different actresses playing her.”
Part of the rationale behind Lorena’s company, 4th Wall Productions, is that it gives opportunities to talented young actors and performers that perhaps haven’t much experience in other companies.
Two of the performers in All About Marilyn, Molly Scurrell and Loleither Evelyn, playing Norma Jean and Ella Fitzgerald, have limited experience on stage, while Sian Naylor, who plays the older Marilyn, has done only musicals and has never attempted a straight play before.
“They are all extremely talented performers but this show is really stretching them – taking them out of their comfort zone.
“Loleither Evelyn as Ella is a member of a gospel choir and was introduced to me through a friend. She’s a fantastic singer but she has never acted before, but she is absolutely fabulous. You can believe she is a young Ella Fitzgerald – and the musical director of the choir has agreed to be the MD of the show, which I am really thrilled about.”
She said it gave her a real buzz to go out looking for performers who were right for the role, rather than casting from a set pool of regulars. “We told the EADT and the Ipswich Star we were looking for people to play Marilyn and Ella, publicised the audition day, and in the end we had people queued up along the Waterfront waiting to get in.”
She said the most difficult role was the older Marilyn, because she had to appear normal and yet have characteristics of the movie Marilyn.
“It was very hard for Sian because I keep telling her in rehearsals: ‘You need more Marilyn in there’; she gives me more and then I say: ‘No, that’s too much’. It’s a really difficult tightrope to walk.”
She said her guiding principle for all the actors is that she doesn’t want an impersonation but an interpretation.
All About Marilyn, by Lorena Cenci, is being staged by 4th Wall Productions at the Jerwood DanceHouse in Ipswich from October 2-6.