'I shall be remembered!' cries Dame Elaine Montgomerie for the fifth time in her one-woman show about the life of Madame de Pompadour. It's a phrase that epitomises the self-obsessed portrait Montgomerie paints of Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, the bourgeoise who seduced and manipulated her way to the lofty heights of Madame, Marquise and king's mistress.
In the grand setting of the EICC's Auditorium, as befits a show which investigates the murky forces behind appearance and legacy, the stage is decked with serene portraits: one of King Louis XV, two of the several portraits the Marquise commissioned for herself and a further one of her 'dear daughter', a girl abandoned by a mother in pursuit of her 'destiny': the king.
The rest of the set is also beautiful. The Marquise was a famous patron of the arts, and the rustly dress which Montgomerie wears during the majority of the show is a replica of the one worn in Boucher's portrait of her. Ornate furniture and valuable antiques fill the stage, which Montgomerie traverses constantly and engagingly. These shiny objects serve as reminders of her magpie's passion for all things material.
Pompadour looks back on a life lived to the full in impressively lengthy and detailed monologues. Her plummy English vowels morph into the gruff Provençal accent of her childhood fortune-teller and later into the infantile speech of the king's son and accordingly she adjusts her physicality. For the most part, Montgomerie's delivery is excellent, colouring the character of Poisson with delicacy. In this early showing, more than a few slips and pauses threatened to smash down the fourth wall irrevocably, but no doubt the fluidity of the show will improve as its run progresses.
While this portrayal of Pompadour is partly convincing, some lines simply do not ring true. In particular, the platitudes spouted when she is filled with 'regret' at her daughter's abandonment and premature death come across as capricious, and they jar with the selfishness and immaturity the character displays throughout the rest of the show. Loaded but ultimately meaningless references to future events and inventions like the French Revolution, the guillotine and paternity tests add little and their glibness damages the integrity of the play. Are we really to believe that Madame de Pompadour was prescient about the invention of DNA profiling ‘two or three hundred years from now’? Come on.
The intrusive voiceover history lessons during the later scene changes also feel out of place, as if at its midpoint the show has changed from a character examination into a historical play. From here onwards the play loses its footing. Dame Montgomerie is an actress at the top of her game, but the script fails to reconcile the political ingenuity and ever-increasing responsibilities of history’s Marquise with her over-exaggerated naivety in the play. Instead of a nuanced portrait of this shrewd puppeteer in the French royal court, the only image that sticks is that of a childish and deluded social climber.