By Richard S. He 11 March 2016
Celebrating her long-overdue return to Australia after a 23-year absence, Madonna treated fans to an intimate show billed as Tears of a Clown at the Forum Theatre. RICHARD S HE was among the fans who witnessed the (very late) night of performance art, comedy, story telling and music.
Only hours before her hyper-exclusive fan show’s scheduled to start, Madonna put this up on Instagram – “I am presently experiencing life at a rate of several WTF’s per hour”. It’s good to know that one of the most famous women in the world still gets nervous.
The doors opened around midnight, three and a half hours late. A handful of fans had been camping out since the morning of the day before. It didn’t matter. Like those elusive Prince afterparties, the later the show starts, the more rewarding it is. Tonight, we’re all impressionable teenagers again, rediscovering feminism and queerness and sexuality and the sheer liberating joy of pop music.
From top to bottom, Tears of a Clown is surreal. It’s hard to process the fact that Madonna’s finally back in Australia, 23 years after The Girlie Show. It’s bizarre, seeing her in the flesh. It’s hilarious, seeing her ride onstage on a miniature girl’s bike, clad in head-to-toe pink top hat, wig, and clown makeup. But as she opens with a trip-hop version of ‘Send in the Clowns’, we’ve never taken her more seriously. Later, she flashes us and throws peanuts at the front row, and hey, we came for that too.
It’s been over a decade since we last saw Madonna in confessional singer-songwriter mode. Tonight, she’s still a feminist/queer icon, but the larger-than-life popstar Madonna’s on the shelf. She plays mostly album cuts from Ray of Light, Music, and most surprisingly, American Life – a deeply personal album largely ignored by radio, but beloved by fans. She even covers Elliott Smith’s ‘Between the Bars’, and it sure as hell isn’t for indie cred.
Tonight’s all about storytelling and, fronting a six-piece band, her voice and lyrics are out front. Madonna’s always been a deeply underrated vocalist; she instinctively knows how to mold her voice to a song’s arrangement, emotion, words. Whether it’s over acoustic guitars or electronic backings, complete with live auto-tune, she’s in fine form.
Tears of a Clown is really a cabaret, as much about her banter as her songs. Madonna rarely gets credit for her perfectly dry comic timing, but it’s on full display tonight. She flits between telling crass jokes – “What do you call the piece of skin at the end of a penis? A man!” – and telling offbeat, moving stories. She talks about her father, who’s living his dream, devoted to tending his vineyard well into his eighties.
She recounts visiting her then-husband Sean Penn – “you know he’s a badass!” – in a maximum-security prison. Sean’s cell is next to Richard Ramirez, the infamous “Night Stalker” serial killer – and he has a line of young female groupies. Meanwhile, the most talked-about celebrity couple of the ‘80s is just… there, alone. She still doesn’t know what to make of it.
Midway through the show, Madonna confesses what we’ve all been thinking, and dedicates ‘Intervention’ to her estranged teenage son Rocco. “There is no love stronger than a mother for her son”; Tears of a Clown really only exists for this moment. Madonna finds catharsis by singing her very saddest songs. And she finds redemption by playing them to 1500 of her most devoted, neglected fans. That’s unconditional love.
By ‘Joan of Arc’, maybe the best song off last year’s Rebel Heart, Madonna’s come to terms with her own limitations. “Fame is a form of misunderstanding”, she says, but she realises she has everything else to live for. Only then can she finally pull out the hits. ‘Don’t Tell Me’ gets the first big singalong of the night. People remember that single for its kitschy cowboy-Americana video, an early predecessor to Kanye’s uncanny ‘Bound 2’. Fewer remember it for its poetic, existential lyrics. Tonight, it’s commiseration and celebration.
Madonna’s reputation as some ice-queen businesswoman couldn’t be further from the truth. She’s always been an artist first and foremost. What she’s doing tonight could melt even the hardest cynic. Tears of a Clown is about comedy, about the unexpected. It’s about laughing through our tears. This Madonna’s more vulnerable because she’s dressed in a ridiculous clown costume.
“People always ask me – why do you keep making records? Going on tour? Haven’t you done everything?… There’s no time limit on creation. When Pablo Picasso was painting, did they tell him to stop?” Madonna’s notorious, and beloved, for never looking back. Virtually all her musical peers are nostalgia acts, but she reinvents herself for every tour, every album. Tonight, she revisits a handful of mostly 13, 15-year-old songs – around the age of her son – and rediscovers the soul they always had. Tonight’s intimate affair only deepens the giant arena tour we’ll see in a few days’ time.
Just before 3 a.m., Madonna finally closes with ‘Take a Bow’, and a ukulele encore of ‘Holiday’. Everyone’s exhausted, but it feels like she could go on forever. Maybe in another 23 years?
Send in the Clowns (Stephen Sondheim cover)
Drowned World/Substitute for Love
Between the Bars (Elliott Smith cover)
I’m So Stupid
Paradise (Not for Me)
Joan of Arc
Don’t Tell Me
Take a Bow