Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney
April 29, 2018
In 1937, Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky arrived in Mexico and had a brief affair with Frida Kahlo, who was by then already married to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Her husband was already more famous than her and it wasn’t until around 20 years after her death, aged just 47 in 1954, that Kahlo’s naïve folk art, tackling questions to do with identity, postcolonialism, gender, class and race in Mexican society, became vastly more famous than his. Kahlo, of course, had an extraordinary and in many ways dreadful life, having suffered childhood polio and a terrible street accident in a tram that left her damaged for life. There was also her iconic monobrow.
Natalie Gamsu with Andrew Kroenert and Stefanie Jones. Photograph © David Hooley
But what if Kahlo and Trotsky had a child? In Carmen, Live or Dead she is called Carmen Frida Leon Davidovich. She is an orphan, a refugee, salacious, wry, always on the look out for love across countries and years, and she is intersex (or hermaphrodite as she prefers). What’s more, this is the last day of her life.
Carmen, Live or Dead was written for Natalie Gamsu, who plays the central role in this very unusual piece of cabaret. With a book by New York-based writer Craig Harwood (created on an idea between him and Gamsu), and songs by iOTA, it has been developed over several years. From Sydney, it goes to the Adelaide Cabaret Festival.
Directed by Shaun Rennie, it takes place on a marvellous set by Dann Barber, which has a proscenium arch covered in artwork by Kahlo, as well as a small model of the set which appears at the beginning and the end, with lighting by Benjamin Brockman. Gamsu looks extraordinary in a black costume by Shauna Lovisetto in which she sports a black bustier, black tights, a panier-like skirt over her hips, black shiny boots, a codpiece, a floral headpiece and a moustache.
Natalie Gamsu and Stefanie Jones. Photograph © David Hooley
She tells her story with total abandon, coming out into the audience at times and singing superbly. iOTA’s final song is the killer; called The Great Divide it is absolutely heartrending. There are times when the gags are a bit naff, like getting the audience to call things out, but she gives it her all and she is compelling in her quest for identity, survival and love, as she wrestles wth the male and female in her nature.
Gamsu is superbly supported by her two “bitches” – Music Director Andrew Kroenert, who plays Angel and also plays guitar and piano, while Stefanie Jones plays Delilah on violin. Both wear face makeup and hardly say a word but are closely involved throughout.
At times it feels as if things are skating past on the surface, and we feel as if we are not quite getting in deeply enough to her character. But Gamsu is amazing, and she slays us at the end.