It’s a bit unsettling to see the self-proclaimed unapologetic bitch – and undisputed queen of pop – having fun, but that seems to be the agenda for Madonna’s Rebel Heart tour.
Her tenth world tour began its short British leg at London’s O2 last night [1 December], having so far sold out across North America with critics noting it as her best, and most personal, show to date.
“I want to start a revolution,” she proclaims, before descending from the ceiling in a cage to opening number Iconic. She’s setting out her stall, quickly followed by Bitch I’m Madonna, for an evening where her dancers and the audience – repeatedly referred to as her ‘bitches’ – would do well to remember just that. She IS iconic and she IS Madonna. So if she wants to have fun on this tour, she will.
Huge floor to ceiling screens act as an interactive backdrop throughout the production, making this quite a different beast from her previous stadium tour, MDNA, while a huge cross – which she refers to as a ‘penis’ – reaches out almost the entire length of the venue’s floor.
It’s at this point that the icon moves among her disciples, making her way halfway along the catwalk to sing Burning Up with a guitar. She smiles as fans scream and clasp their face in hysteria at her acknowledgment.
The religious themes that Madonna so frequently plays with are present in the opening act – stripper nuns pole dance on crucifixes to Holy Water, while The Last Supper takes a slightly more sexual turn. It segues into Vogue, which is the only outing for what is usually a show-stopping number on her previous tours. She writhes around on a table, bound up, to Devil Pray while fans dressed as nuns and devils look on.
The interludes are brief, and spectacular, as dance routines accommodate several costume and set changes – the first of which sees the stage transformed into a car workshop for Body Shop. Your local Kwik Fit was never quite so hot. “Cos cars and love always go together,” she proclaims, before singing an acoustic version of True Blue. Rarely performed live, it’s good to hear.
Deeper and Deeper follows, complete with a line dance routine. That fun we talked about earlier? It’s all over her face. And you can’t imagine her doing this when the song was originally released…
“I said ‘bitches are you in my gang’!” she screams, and thousands of ‘bitches’ scream back in the positive.
But love, as it quite often does, takes a sour turn, and a melancholy section follows as a spiral staircase is lowered from the ceiling in order to allow Madonna to have a dramatic dance-off/break up with a dancer to Heartbreak City and Love Don’t Live Here Anymore.
“Nobody fucks with the queen!” she roars, victorious in her romantic defeat before breaking into a – yes – fun version of Like a Virgin.
With several solo dance routine moments throughout, Rebel Heart is less theatrical than MDNA, and often verging on the more intimate cabaret. You could watch her all day and get the feeling she could actually go on all day… It’s by no means as energetic as MDNA, though god knows we couldn’t do even a fraction of what she’s getting up to on stage.
The third act initially hints at the carnal, with Justify My Love morphing into S.E.X as dancers – of mixed sexual preference, of course – perform routines as couples on four beds, suspended on a tilted platform.
While this is going on, Madonna makes another entrance, this time from the far end of her runway – giving many a flashback to the last time she performed at this venue, for The Brit Awards. She reclaims the moment, recreating the routine for Living For Love (almost) exactly as she did that night, and there’s a huge cheer when her cloak is removed as intended. It’s annoying that this moment is destined to remain with both the song and performance.
La Isla Bonita morphs the matador theme into a Day of the Dead street party section, which sees Dress You Up, Into The Groove and Lucky Star mashed into a strange remix which, sadly, is the where the show sags slightly.
“I wish someone would give me a spanking,” she says, “but I never do anything wrong.” We’re willing to volunteer in light of ruining three classic pop songs in the space of eight minutes, but hey – she’s Madonna, and this show is testament to the fact that she can do as she pleases.
A stripped down version of Who’s That Girl follows, and she stops the show to pay tribute to World AIDS Day. “It’s important to remember we still haven’t found a cure. We shall overcome, one day.”
It’s heartfelt, and moving, and she talks about how AIDS claimed the family of her adopted son. She performs Like A Prayer – which isn’t usually on the set list – in tribute and it’s the first time in the evening that the audience truly goes wild. It’s a stunning version of one of the best pop songs of all time.
“We’re alive and we survived and amen to fucking that,” she says. “And that is what makes a rebel heart – to be able to fight for what you believe in, but to do it with love.”
Naturally, Rebel Heart follows – and what’s most memorable about this section is the absolutely STUNNING artwork that’s displayed on the giant screens behind her. If this doesn’t make it as a DVD extra, or some kind of book then someone’s missing a trick…
The final act begins with acrobats on poles swaying back and forth across the audience with some force, while Illuminati ushers in a 30s/Gatsby inspired section with top hats, tails and women in flapper dresses. She veers dangerously into Kylie territory with a jazz version of Music – but it very quickly becomes the banger it should always be.
Candy Shop works well in this format, and the top hats and tails make sense when Material Girl kicks in – with Madonna discarding her dancers one by one down a sloped stage.
It’s a missed opportunity though, for a show that’s truly career-spanning, for this segment to not include something from I’m Breathless. More was surely made for this… Instead there’s a cover of La Vie En Rose, which is beautiful, and an acoustic (and re-worked!) rendition of Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.
The penultimate number, Unapologetic Bitch, sees an audience member hauled up on stage to walk the runway and be presented – for reasons best known to herself – with a piece of fruit. In this performance Graham Norton is picked from the crowd and presented with a banana, where Madonna clunkily compares it to a penis and pretends to masturbate it. She may be having fun, but this is the woman who once almost got arrested for simulating masturbation on stage. Crass jokes with phallic fruit are best left to tacky drag acts.
What do you do for an encore? Feed carrots to Alan Carr? Fortunately we’re spared that, and Holiday ends the show feeling distinctly cabaret as Madonna flies into the air on wires.
While Rebel Heart may not be her best live show, it’s a timely reminder that she’s still the greatest living entertainer on the planet. Bitches.
GT gives Rebel Heart Tour at the O2 4/5