The show begins before the show. A masked, female DJ dressed like a war-crier from Mad Max lurches over her decks and demands of the packed house at Rod Laver Arena: “Are you ready for the queen? Are you ready for your queen?”
The queen herself takes another half hour to materialise, but when she does her entrance is beyond mere expectations of the regal. The music blares, the lights blast, the queen descends from the ceiling in flowing red and black robes, and with her retinue styled as a legion of armed samurai reenacting in mime the battles of the Crusades at a nightclub goth night, the queen hits the stage as, within an explosion of video, the words “I’m the best there ever was!” is shouted by a convicted rapist.
Mike Tyson? Seriously? But the crowd is on their feet, dancing, cheering. OnlyMadonna can get away with this.
If the video placement of a screaming Tyson amongst the bright colours of an opening song and dance number is startling, consider the lyrics of the song itself, Iconic: “If you don’t make the choice / And you don’t use your voice / Someone else will speak for you instead.”
Herein lies both the central theme of this Rebel Heart tour show, as well as perhaps the enduring appeal of Madonna herself: only by doing exactly as she pleases can she define herself on her own terms.
It’s more than thirty years since Madonna first appeared as the swaying, self-absorbed singer of songs such as Holiday, amusing herself by dancing around in the kind of see-though, cheap-lace clothes that, at the time, everyone – even your mum – would have called you a slut for leaving the house in. The defining image of her “give a fuck”-free attitude was cemented in a scene from her role in 1985’s Desperately Seeking Susan. Madonna, as the happily amoral Susan, cleans herself up in a public toilet, drying her armpits in the airflow of an upturned hand-drier; matrons watch on, horrified, but an uncaring Susan/Madonna immerses herself in a moment of sensual joy.
She’s been doing exactly as she pleases ever since, and “making the choice, using her voice” in a parade of wilful reinventions and reimaginings of her pop persona. The difference between Madonna and pop stars like Britney Spears is her self-reinventions have always been her act, rather than a strategised rebranding intended to sell more records to new markets.
And what an act it is. Twenty years since she last toured Australia with her Girlie Show, one could be forgiven for expecting a new performance to be slowed by the weariness of ageing. Madonna’s now 57, but Rebel Heart explores the mechanics of just how much ageing is a performance, too; there’d be teenagers hard-pressed to replicate her onstage gyrations, her sudden press ups, rapid squats, burst of flamenco, trapeze work, pole-dancing, or circling the stage on a tricycle, let alone while also singing, managing costume changes and keeping up her repartee, launching into a dark shred of Burning Up on a flying-V one moment and a tender acoustic rendition of True Blue the next.
She’s Madonna, she can do what she wants; if that means dressing herself up as a matador and herding men dressed as minotaurs, pushing a lover from a staircase into a pit, or shoving men from the stage while belting out Material Girl, she will if she can and she does.
Sound exhausting? It is, as much for the audience as for the performer, who around the two-thirds mark seems to hit a problem with the sync of the sound, and attempts to distract us with some breathlessly flat jokes about spilled nuts. Ever the pro, Madonna throws to Molly Meldrum, spied in the audience, thanking the local hero who supported her early career, while buying her crew some crucial seconds with the chanting gratitude of the crowd. The pace had slackened; she recovered it.
Later, she suggested she was recovering from a cold, and said she’d missed a song. It may have been a medley including Lucky Star and Get Into The Groove, featured in other Rebel Heart shows but missing here. It hardly matters; with pole-dancing nuns in nappies, stage bungee-diving, a reenactment of Da Vinci’s Last Supper as an orgy, leaping samurai, acrobats, simulated sex acts and Madonna belting out old hits, new hits, and old hits done in the manner of new hits – plus a bit of Sondheim and Motown, as well as a surprisingly moving cover of Edith Piaf – one hardly walks away unentertained.
If the definition of an artist is their unique contribution to spectacle, the queen reigns supreme.
- Madonna plays Brisbane Entertainment Centre on 16 & 17 March, and Allphones Arena in Sydney on 19 & 20 March
Read more at The Guardian