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It all started with Judy Garland. The American starlet may have found it impossible to escape her cracked past until her untimely death at only 47 years, but Judy Speaks, a series of bitter audio recordings by the troubled actress was the key to helping one artist move on from their usual cabaret act and ultimately create Blackouts – a reflection on icons, infamy and identity in the 21st Century.
That artist and performer is Dickie Beau, who through Blackouts, which premiered in 2012, has brought Judy and many more poignant voices on tape to life through astounding mimicry and interpretation. Back then he never knew how far those first performances of Judy Speaks would go – “When I listened to those tapes I immediately knew that there was something that could be used powerfully in performance there,” says Beau, “When I came to put it together it was inconceivable not to use her voice. I spent a lot of time on the drag scene so the lip syncing thing seemed to come naturally. I wasn’t sure anybody was going to be that interested in what I was doing – but I guess I was wrong!”
Now with a show at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre and a tour throughout 2015, Blackouts and Beau have grown to incorporate a full host of voices and personalities – including the last ever taped interview of one Marilyn Monroe.
“One reviewer described it as being like a queer Krapp’s Last Tape which I think is quite an apt description – I love that description,” says Beau, and the comparisons with Beckett are noticeable – especially in the exact timings of Beau’s work. “There is a musicality and a choreography to it all…the way that I work is that I edit and rewrite the material often, so there’s logic to the decision that’s made that make it easier to remember – so by the time I come to rehearse it I’ve usually got a good memory of how it flows.”
But even before the hours of repetition and practice sometimes just acquiring the tapes can take a lot of effort. In order to be able to perform Marilyn’s last interview, Beau had to fly to New York to meet the interviewer Richard Meryman – and then convince him to be able to use the tapes. It was a long process which almost didn’t come together – at first Beau was only allowed access to an interview with Meryman rather than the Marilyn tapes – but over the course of his stay in the Big Apple the artist eventually convinced the journalist enough so that now Blackouts features both Meryman and Monroe throughout – and Beau’s own interview with the journalist has become a “glue” for the entire performance.
Richard Meryman’s very recent passing only adds another layer to Beau’s study of immortality and infamy. For the artist himself the performance is “quite bleak and autobiographical” and “specifically about the question of where the icons that I look up to end and where I begin, and how much of me is made up of who they were and how much of them have been absorbed as part of my entity.”
The interweaving of past and present and real and recorded is one that opens itself to lots of Beckettian contemplations such as these, and one that Beau looks set to continue to explore through Blackouts and beyond. “Sometimes it does start with the voice and then something flowers out of that, then other times I have a theme and then I go trawling for voices,” Beau says on how he first initiates his performance ideas. Only time will tell what new icons will become part of Beau’s repertoire, a collection haunted by the distant voices of celebrity and fame, but one which is very much its own work of art.