Thursday, October 14, 2021

Review: iMelania, 13th October 2021

iMelania reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

First thoughts were that a play about Melania Trump might have missed the bus. After all, with Joe Biden in the White House and a whole new set of problems tearing the world apart, who has the time for a former First Lady who was often invisible even when her husband was the leader of the free world?

But iMelania acknowledges and incorporates its subject's absence to make a smart and concise statement on identity. At the core is the paradox of Melania Trump: an immigrant married to a man defined by his anti-immigration policies. 

The show nails why she's intriguing and frustrating, with her actual pronouncements and interviews so anodyne you can't help but try and figure out what she's *really* thinking. What does the smiling vanishing from her face the nanosecond her husband turns away mean? Is she really rolling her eyes as he speaks? Why in god's holy name did she wear a coat with "I really don't care, do u" on it during a trip intended to show the opposite?

Varjack-Lowry dig through these mixed messages in a smartly produced online show that takes place over two screens. This isn't complicated: the performance consists of two streaming videos played in sync that simulate WhatsApp conversations and a laptop desktop. It's technologically straightforward but neatly simulates the way most of us consume current affairs.

The early segments recapping Melania's greatest hits are entertaining enough, especially in how they highlight the way the Trump presidency is rapidly curdling into nostalgia, but the show properly comes to life when it gets personal.

The focus on nationality and identity is refracted through Brexit, with both Varjack and Lowry ruminating on how their legal nationalities map onto their personal identities. There's a cruel precision to some of this: with the most moving part the keenly felt injustice of missing out on an Italian passport because you were born two months after the 1992 cut-off date.

The longer the show goes on the more Melania looks like a perversely good mirror for the immigrant experience, particularly the way she juggles contradictory identities. For instance, when Varjack and Lowry discuss the struggle of being legally considered something you're not it's easy to map that onto footage of Melania being praised by right-wing media as the epitome of the All-American woman.

The show ends on an anticlimax, though that's not Varjack-Lowry's fault. iMelania was supposed to have been staged in summer 2020 when it seemed all too plausible that its subject would have stayed in the limelight for another four years. But COVID got in the way, though in a strange way it's appropriate that Melania has apparently vanished off the face of the Earth since being booted out of the White House. 

Trying to nail her down is like trying to grasp onto a fistful of sand. There's no personality except for a vague cattiness and no politics except a very muted echo of her husband's fury. By the time the virtual curtain dropped I'd started to see her as a human Rorschach test, an outline to be coloured in as you see fit. Hell, maybe there never really was a Melania Trump and we all collectively imagined her into existence.

With COVID now (hopefully) receding into the distance and theatres re-opening these innovative online performances may start to vanish. But it'd be a shame if they disappeared completely as iMelania proves how powerful digital theater can be.

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