The Ghost and the Machine – Blackouts by Dickie Beau

Blackouts-Red Judy- Credit Paul Blakemore

Blackouts by Dickie Beau


There is a particular allure about icons of the Hollywood Golden Age of Cinema. Instantly recognisable and always out of reach, they shine from the dark shadows of obsolete film technology, summoned in a charade of make-up and starch-stiff clothes. Forever young and full of desire, in fact these beautiful bodies are a mirage: a collection of other people’s points of view, captured in light, a lifetime ago.  You can look into Marilyn Monroe’s wide, blue eyes for an eternity, but she will never look back.


Live theatre, on the other hand, trades on just the opposite: the real, the bodily, the tangible. It thrives on the comfort and the threat of watching a breathing, sweating human being move about in real space and time. Equally as fragile and equally as real, these two technologies of performance are shaped by the desires of people watching. We, the audience, will the stars to appear for us, to dance for us, to float and flicker magically in front of our eyes.


In Blackouts, Dickie Beau mixes the cinematic and the theatrical in a poignant, beautiful and moving … what, exactly? The show, for all its references to the imperialism of the gaze, eludes the knowledge that looking implies. Dickie Beau appears on stage variously as Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland and Richard Meryman – the journalist who recorded the final interview Monroe ever gave. The performer escapes definition by changing costume in front of our eyes, transforming from an old man to a beautiful woman, pulling iconic dresses and shoes from an old suitcase. While Marlene Dietrich’s voice sings Blowing in the Wind, he paints his face with the haunting make-up of a clown.


Dickie Beau is often called a ‘drag fabulist’ – he draws on the traditions of drag performance, at the same time as he builds stories that exceed their own limits, like a fable. Every element in Blackouts points to more than itself: the costumes, the make-up, the familiar voices saying unfamiliar things. The show is driven by rarely heard audio recordings from Monroe, Garland and Meryman, which reveal semi-private moments of their lives: Monroe talking after she has left the control of her studio, Garland’s notes for a memoir she never wrote, and Meryman remembering his meeting with Marilyn, during an interview with Dickie Beau.


Dickie Beau lip-syncs to the recordings, but lip-syncing is not a good enough description of what he does.  “It’s about channeling the voices,” he said in a recent interview for Gay Times, “imagining the voices going through my body, but at the same time the body becomes a conduit for other things, like glitches in machines.”  Garland, for instance, drawls into the microphone. No longer ‘young’ (“the grand old age of 41”) and no longer sober, her words move through Dickie Beau’s body, as her narrative rocks from defiance to despair. The character on stage does not just represent Judy Garland, but becomes her. And she does not just become Judy Garland, but also the technology that rustles Garland through time, and ensures the conditions of her immortality.


Sometimes the tape recordings splutter or repeat themselves, and the body on stage jolts too. “We are not machines”, says the voice of Marilyn Monroe as Dickie-Marilyn twirls unnaturally like a stop-motion film.  “This is not a self-portrait”, says Meryman, talking about his interview with Marilyn, “It is just a performance.” And the machine plays the sound again, and again, compelling the body of Dickie-Richard to spring into action.


This year’s Sacred Festival of Live Art at Chelsea Theatre has the theme ‘identity’, and Dickie Beau’s delicate weave of identities performed and re-performed is an apt start to the season. He first conceived of the show, he writes in the programme notes, “about my childhood idols, Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland.” But his research led him to Richard Meryman, and the show expanded to include the tangle of dreams and desire that sustain all of our lives. Meryman “was reminded of his younger self in me,” says Dickie Beau, “and I was haunted after meeting him by the image of something like the future face of me.”


The result is both a love letter to performance, and an attempt to discover an authentic self. In other words, Blackouts does what Live Art does best – elude description, and embody impossible truths. As Garland, Dickie Beau’s costume is from the Wizard of Oz –  red dress, pigtails, sparkly red shoes. And so here stands Dorothy, a place-holder for childhood, along with all its innocence and soon-to-be-crushed hope. And here stands laughter and sorrow, or rather that peculiar mixture of the two painted into the clown – a mask to hide the muscles of someone who isn’t smiling.


And here stands Dickie Beau, beautiful, real, breathing and sweating. A man in women’s clothing, a drag artist, a performer, a person who lies for a living, a person who chooses to dance between the real and the imagined, the remembered and the dreamt, the object of desire and the obsessive fan who nurtures it.


“The show became a kind of dream,” writes Dickie Beau, “that is not all a dream, in which the characters on my trip each become one another’s afterlives …”  Accordingly, the characters in Blackouts live in a shared set of memories, in which the boundaries between private and public, mine and yours, memory and appearance, are blurred.  The stage is sealed by a translucent screen, and here black and white films flicker and dance, mesmerising the characters on stage as much as the audience. Symbols are re-used and repurposed: Marilyn Monroe’s house, for example, also belongs to the witch from the Wizard of Oz.


In the midst of these fragments and relics, Dickie Beau becomes the ghost and the machine – at once the spirits of people dressed in desire, the mechanical magic that makes them shine, and the dehumanising equivalence of technologies that can’t differentiate between the real and the reproduced.


What will happen when one of these characters escapes the beautiful tyranny of the performance machine? Will she be real? Will she be seen? Or will she, like us, long to return to a familiar kind of lie: the magic of the light filled memory, the unreal flicker of light and dark, the ever-producible (dis)honesty of a recorded voice?


by Mary Paterson