NEW York’s Chelsea Hotel has long been immortalised in song.
Jefferson Airplane, Joni Mitchell and Lou Reed all name checked the hotel in lyrics they penned although Leonard Cohen’s homage to it after a racy night with Janis Joplin (‘giving me head on the unmade bed’) is probably best known.
While the hotel is currently being renovated, it remains the inspiration for artistic endeavour. Step forward Polly Wiseman, writer and actress, who has written Femme Fatale – a play given a one night airing last week at Wilton’s Music Hall, a stone’s throw from London’s Tower Bridge.
Rapturously received, the play – interlaced with cabaret – centres on an actual meeting that took place in 1968 between two strong-minded women. The clash of the titans, in Room 546.
In one corner Nico (Polly Wiseman), a German singer (with The Velvet Underground), model and a performer much loved by Andy Warhol. Sexy, sultry and with a big penchant for drugs and lovers (famous ones). A self-proclaimed ‘high class act’ and lover of Jim Morrison (The Doors). Oh, and she is wearing Chelsea boots. She is waiting to perform in Warhol’s latest film.
In the other, Valerie Solonas, a fiery leaflet wielding lesbian keen to tell the world about her SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men), part of which calls for the elimination of men. Solonas (Sophie Olivia) is a firebrand and she is on a mission to seek retribution on Warhol for rejecting her play Up Your Ass. Indeed, she believes he stole it.
After Solonas breaks into Nico’s room while she is asleep (a bed comprising three large Brillo Pad boxes), the clash begins. The verbal sparring is intense as Solonas attacks men for being ‘obsessed with screwing’ and not interested in intelligent conversation. Nico, self-obsessed and possessor of a razor sharp tongue herself, is admonished when applying yet more lipstick. ‘Another layer,’ quips Solonas, ‘and you would be in drag’.
As the exchanges continue, we learn that the two opposites have commonality. Both were raped as teenagers and both have children. Yet Solonas is on a mission, culminating in a failed act of revenge on Warhol.
At just 50 minutes long, Femme Fatale is a vinaigrette of a play. There are some clever touches – the screen at the back detailing times and venues, and Solonas embarking upon an enjoyable exchange with the audience where she proceeds to lambast all the men she picks on. Wiseman also delivers some of Nico’s more famous songs in accomplished fashion.
The ending is also smart with the two of them reflecting on their lives and how they died some 30 years ago – yes, bloody damned drugs. Even in death, Solonas is calling for a female society.
With its strong feminist theme, Femme Fatale – directed by Nathan Evans – is of the moment. Both Wiseman and Olivia are quite brilliant with the former wholly convincing as a drugged up Germanic temptress. It is not without its flaws but the audience loved it.
Above all else, it highlights how remarkable Nico and Solonas were. Female icons of the 1960s, determined to go their own way inspite of insurmountable prejudices.