It’s 1968 at the Chelsea Hotel in New York, not that it’s obvious given that the set consists only of Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes. The plot, its circumstances and its character, all revolve around and are made possible by Warhol, but the artist himself doesn’t feature in Femme Fatale. And rightly so, because it’s not about him. Writer Polly Wiseman stars in her play alongside Sophie Olivia, while Nathan Evans directs.
Femme Fatale draws on known facts to construct a humorous imagined encounter between Valerie Solanas (Olivia) and Warhol’s muse, Nico (Wiseman), hours before Solanas attempts to murder Warhol. What should have been a fleeting meeting ends up with the characters spending the day together, simply because there’s something in it for each woman — drugs for Nico and access to Warhol for Solanas. The women seem like polar opposites; Solanas is an intelligent, homeless, radical feminist and the only member of her group SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) who can’t seem to stop talking or writing or thinking, meanwhile Nico is “famous for being silent,” and seems to divide each phase of her life up depending on which illustrious man she was involved with at the time.
As the play unfolds, however, we begin to learn that the women aren’t so different after all. They both have been horrifyingly hurt, abused and failed by the men in their lives, and while Solanas is vocal about her hatred of men, Nico is harbouring some thorny feelings that she’s reluctant to deal with. While Solanas wants to stand and fight the injustices she’s witnessed, all Nico wants to do is run and hide from them.
Transitions between scenes are marked by the click and flash of a slide projector, transporting the audience without having to completely reorganise the set or involve complicated wardrobe changes. There’s an element of live music and stand-up to the show too, which offers further insight into these complicated characters.
The end of the play has an interesting 2018 #TimesUp twist. The long-dead women reunite at the New York women’s marches and find unity and a middle ground in today’s progress, though both of them take turns predicting how many more years are needed, Nico as always being the more patient and pessimistic of the two.
In Femme Fatale we see Solanas’ paranoia descend into violence and Nico’s rage melt into drug abuse, but Wiseman’s dark and puzzling play gives this tragic story a hopeful ending. After all these years, Solanas and Nico’s suffering, more often than not at the hands of powerful men, was not in vain.
Femme Fatale is playing Wilton’s Music Hall until 17 July 2018
Photo: Wilton’s Music Hall website