White port and willpower make for quite a cocktail. About halfway through tonight’s two-hour set, the first of 14 in London, Madonna takes a break on top of a baby grand piano. She drains a glass of the Douro region’s finest export – “sipping my pain just like champagne”, perhaps, as per the lyrics of Medellin, a song from her last album, Madame X.
Madonna grew fond of white port when she first moved to Lisbon, where her footballing son, David, enrolled in Benfica’s youth academy three years ago, and tonight it combines very well with Madonna’s steely self-possession. Forget the overplayed G&T boom – a little fortified wine allows the embattled singer to deliver a knockout show, full of stagecraft and chutzpah, spy chic and revolutionary zeal, in spite of well-publicised limitations.
The first night of this London residency was pulled because doctors once again ordered her to rest. It was the latest in a series of missed shows as the Madame X tour has wound its way through theatre venues in North America and Lisbon, often into the small hours. A friend who went to see her in Los Angeles reported the venue was Bikram-hot, presumably to keep Madonna’s muscles supple.
Tonight, this dancer turned singer shows she can still bust out some spectacular moves. Madonna does a handstand in a circular nook, gets dragged and thrown around by her dancers, and kneels down at the front of the stage to take a Polaroid of herself and count up wads of cash. Only because this is Madonna – her commitment to perpetual motion has always matched her desire to rattle the cage of the Catholic church – do you notice the absence of high heels and the pared-back legwork. How to get down from the piano, with a dodgy knee, a sub-par hip and a mild port high? A dancer tips up the piano lid and Madonna slides off, grinning. Another workaround: for Frozen, a slow-burner about emotional constipation from 1998’s Ray of Light album, Madonna sings as her eldest daughter, Lourdes, does the dancing for her, via a video projection.
The wine rush seems to make Madonna even more garrulous. These theatre shows have been designed for greater intimacy, a way to deliver the politics and world bops of her actually very good Madame X album less bombastically than in an arena. There is a lot of audience interaction, not least when Madonna plonks herself down next to a poor soul from Sardinia and unconscionably mocks him for sourcing interior design fabrics. The Polaroid auction for charity is crass and weird, as Madonna fields cash offers from a couple of bidders who have already forked out for stall seats, one of whom climbs on stage and receives a tongue-lashing.
Mostly, though, the proximity is intoxicating – the singer-percussionists of the Orquestra Batukadeiras join Madonna for the rousing, Cape Verde-themed Batuka filing in through the stalls. At the end, everyone – musicians, dancers – sashays out through the stalls too. If the seat prices are ridiculous (£140 is typical, peaking with VIP packages at around £1,000), the sense of occasion is only heightened by the absence of mobiles, safely tucked away in Faraday pouches. “How come no one’s taking my picture?” Madonna jokes, then confides: “I consider this an intervention for all of us.”
There are roughly 20 songs in the set, but some of the chitchat almost deserves equal billing with bangers such as the deathlessly wonderful Vogue and Like a Prayer, and a restyled version of La Isla Bonita (“a Portuguese lullaby”), the song that first crystallised Madonna’s now on-trend Latinate bent.
“I’m now going to use my British accent,” Madonna announces, primly. She was, she says, aghast listening back to interviews from her London years. “Why did you let me do that to myself? I’m from Michigan!” A notoriously tardy diva, Madonna refers repeatedly to a warning from Westminster council to bring down the nine-ton fire curtain if she breaks curfew. We learn that David supports Tottenham.
Underneath all the topspin, the show itself is strong. Somehow, Madonna can talk about gun control – in the arresting opener, God Control – and how she learned about Portuguese fado from the late fadista Celeste Rodrigues without grinding gears. A 16-year-old Portuguese guitarist joins Madonna on stage for an impressive attempt at the dramatic Portuguese folk form. (The audience convinces Madonna that it’s perfectly legal for him to have a swig of beer afterwards.) If anything, Madonna’s voice has only improved with the years.
She can combine a girl crush on Joan of Arc – the song Dark Ballet, played out via a Coldplay-like penchant for revolutionary uniforms – with an extended meditation about the death of American influence in the international sphere. Hard-won self-actualisation is juxtaposed with smut, Moroccan gnawa with a Japanese viola player on Come Alive. The narrative line throughout is that Madame X – Madonna’s latest incarnation – is an international woman of mystery, travelling around from Kingston to Angola to Medellin.
Little mentioned in gig reports thus far is the excellent lighting work and shadow-play, particularly when shadowy hands assail Madonna in her circular nook. Dancers frequently carry a star’s costume change interlude, but the section tonight when nine dancers spasm to some beats created out of gasps was so intense you wish it had gone on longer.
The use of images of the typewritten word is trenchant throughout. A long intro repeatedly hammers the words of US writer James Baldwin into the consciousness: “Art is here to prove that safety is an illusion.” The letters clack out, resembling pistol cracks, and a rubber-boned dancer falls repeatedly to the ground as more gunshots ring out. The beats of the letters become the percussion to songs. This rat-a-tat may have begun as part of the tour’s retro spy-game styling, but it also supports the witness-bearing of writers and journalists.
Clearly, Madonna is a member of the 1%, and her outrage at environmental crimes sits uneasily with a jet-set lifestyle. But her treatment of the issues is full of believable anger; her proactive and progressive grandstanding dates back to the 80s. On Killers Who Are Partying, in the wake of Donald Trump’s nominal Middle East peace deal, she sings the line “I will be Palestine” – a change from the usual “Israel” lyric. It prompts a shiver-inducing cheer.
One of the finest songs on Madame X is Extreme Occident, a mature assessment of a very female state of being: being told what she is or isn’t. “I wasn’t lost,” sings Madonna, “I was right”. Perhaps most of all, this Madame X tour is an advert for trusting one’s own instincts, however contradictory and eclectic they may be.
• At London Palladium until 16 Feb
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