Courting controversy

Sheridan Harbridge as 19th-century French courtesan Marie Duplessis in Songs for the Fallen. Photos: Louis Dillon Savage.
Sheridan Harbridge as 19th-century French courtesan Marie Duplessis in Songs for the Fallen. Photos: Louis Dillon Savage.

The story of Paris’ original party girl is sure to raise some eyebrows, writes Gillian Thomas.

Award-winning Australian actor, singer, writer and comedian Sheridan Harbridge is bringing 19th-century French courtesan Marie Duplessis to Arts Festival Dunedin in Songs for the Fallen, a cabaret-style music theatre that celebrates the life of a woman who knew one thing: "good girls don’t make history".

Marie Duplessis has inspired many works of art: Alexander Dumas’ romantic novel The Lady of the Camellias, Verdi’s opera La Traviata, and Moulin Rouge.

She was mistress to a number of prominent wealthy men, counting Dumas as one of her lovers along with composer Franz Liszt.

Born into poverty, she emerged from the poorhouse to become, at the age of 17, one of the most famous women of Paris. She died at the age of 23.

Sheridan Harbridge’s attention was first drawn to the Paris doyenne when she was at drama school.

"I first heard about her when a lecturer mentioned an infamous courtesan who purportedly wore a white camellia for 24 days of the month and red camellia for the remaining, when she was 'out-of-business' as such. I thought it was a sordid and wonderfully honest image."

It was a few years later, when Sheridan began to research Duplessis’ life, that she grew in admiration of the courtesan’s extraordinary resilience and rise to fame.

"I was wanting to make a show that felt like a party: raucous and wild, something that would get the audience in a frenzy. Marie Duplessis lived a very decadent life and had a great time along the way and that’s what the show celebrates. Yes, there’s tragedy in her life but a lot to be wowed at as well.

"Marie defied all the odds, to not only survive extreme poverty, but to use extraordinary tenacity and wit to become the most infamous woman in Paris by the time she was 17. Many times she has been likened to Princess Diana, the people’s princess, who set the trends, who was never not talked about. I saw in her a story of rapacious survival, and giving the finger to the Establishment. A party girl of Lindsay Lohan-esque madness; we know we shouldn’t watch, but we can’t turn away from the decadence, we know we wouldn’t survive it, but we envy how close she flies to the sun.

"The girl was smart. Whip smart. She knew she had commodities to survive, and used them: taught herself several languages, modified her accent, passed herself off as gentry. She never chased what other people wanted, she was her own girl: she never wore what was in fashion, she created new fashions, set the trends."

Harbridge says that this was an era when women couldn’t own property, that there was more power and choice being a courtesan than being a wife.

"She made herself the only gal you’d want to be with on a Saturday night.  And was a coy and unpinnable seductress; she was known to tell white lies, concoct any story to suit herself, her lovers. She kept herself very well read, she could talk to Liszt about any composer in Europe, entertain Balzac, inspire Dumas."

Duplessis’ legendary status was rich pickings for Harbridge and discerning fiction from fact was part of the fun.

"There is so much fiction to pick through. Everyone wanted a piece of her, and claimed they knew her. She didn’t help the cause by making up any damn history she wanted. But the fiction is as enjoyable as the fact, the legend is the fun part to tear down.

"She wasn’t born into fame and fortune and didn’t know how to handle the money and the attention. She had incredible ups and downs and would party herself to death. She had contracted tuberculosis in the poorhouse when she was still a laundry maid. The illness took her life at age 23. Songs for the Fallen celebrates the heart of the woman who defied extraordinary odds to live life the way she wanted to live it: ‘life is bloody and stinks but there’s always Champagne!’."

Last year the show had its New York debut.

"New York Music Theatre Festival was a hoot. The Yanks loved it, it was very wild for them. Music theatre is their genre, they made it, they perfected it, they have expectations of it, and Songs for the Fallen turned the genre on its head. I was very nervous on how they would take it, but they hooted. We won Best Musical and Best Actress, we were rapt."

At the festival, in the Mayfair Theatre, Marie Duplessis will "party" with her two "beautiful boys" who play all the lovers and female parts.

There will be plenty of glitter, feathers and, of course, Champagne. And asked whether or not the audience get to party too, Sheridan was emphatic in her reply.

"Hell yeah."

 

The show

Songs for the Fallen, Mayfair Theatre, October 3-5,  8pm.

For more information, visit: www.artsfestivaldunedin.co.nz

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