Italian performer Monica Salvi almost literally brought the house down at the launch of Just Festival last month. Rarely can the 200-year-old St. John’s Church have encountered vocals as ground-shakingly powerful as hers. She was there to preview her show, Mad Women In My Attic, a trawl through the troubled minds of musical theatre’s most famous female characters, which received rave reviews during its Brighton Fringe run. We spoke to Monica to find out more…
Who are the mad women in your attic?
Mostly women I have portrayed on stage in the past 18 years, both in the UK and my native Italy. As I mention in my show, I think I have some quality in me that inspires casting directors to give me the role of a mad, unstable, or – at its sanest – over the top, quirky woman in a show.
I decided to collect all those characters’ crazy beautiful songs (as well as more songs from the cabaret world which have a similar theme) and link them together with a fil rouge which tells the (semi-autobiographical!) story of a woman who ended up in a mental asylum, while trying to pursue a theatre career!
What is your fascination with ‘madness’?
It started with researching those characters. Often, I have had the feeling that what was depicted as “madness” (to use the non-politically-correct term), was in most cases the result of an uncontrolled outpouring of emotions, triggered by things that happened to those characters. They were then unable to cope, as no-one had taught them how to.
This doesn’t just apply to fiction, of course. The most likely person to be affected by a mental issue is usually the one that has had to shut down emotions throughout their lives from an early stage. Then it takes one minimal trigger to open a Pandora’s box, and that’s how most breakdowns occur. Some people go to therapy, start looking within themselves, discover the marvellous ways of the human brain, and become more in tune with themselves. Other people become overwhelmed and get sucked into depression, which is a very dark and scary place where things that are not real have the power to control your reality. My fascination is not with madness itself, but with how people manage to cope with it.
On a lighter note, I am attracted to flamboyant eccentric people. I like everything and everyone who dares to be different! One of my proudest moments as a Madwoman, was to be asked to sing at a few events hosted by the prestigious Eccentric Club of London.
How do you feel changing characters and costumes so many times in the show? Does that have an effect on your mind and your performance?
It certainly does! First, it makes the show unpredictable not just to my audience, but to me! The costume changes are so quick, complicated and in some cases choreographed with the music, that if one little thing goes wrong, or, for example, I take one more second to put a sleeve on, the whole structure of the scene collapses! This can be very stressful on an imbalanced mind, such as this poor Madwoman’s.
It’s also quite tricky to deliver a monologue genuinely, while at the same time trying to hide a horsewhip between your legs. But I wouldn’t have it any other way, as the different costumes allow me to slip naturally into different personas and characters. It’s a bit like magic – I put a costume on, and the personality of that character possesses me, without me having to think about it!
Tell us about your background as a singer. Where and what have you sung?
I have two diplomas in musical theatre – one from an Italian academy of performing arts, the second from London’s Royal Academy of Music (where the wonderful teachers started to recognise and groom my penchant for crazy songs and characters). Since graduation, I’ve enjoyed singing in the most eclectic circumstances, from piss-smelling theatre pubs to the Royal Albert Hall, from fringe theatre and music hall varieties to being part of Elton John‘s backing singers at Wembley Arena.
This is the first time I have done a show by myself, for myself, and with only a pianist to share the stage with (the talented Artemis Reed), so it’s my most exciting singing adventure ever.
What’s your favourite song in the show and why?
My favourite song is By The River by Maury Yeston. It is the only song in the show which is about true sadness: a woman is mourning a lost love and is so overwhelmed by her feelings, that she starts to hear the whispers from a river, which beckons her to join the waves and surrender to the cycles of life and death and love’s beginnings and endings.
While most of the other songs in my show are flamboyant, funny, scary or quite sexy, this is the only one which is very introspective and real. The melody is hauntingly gorgeous and soaring, and I think it speaks to people’s hearts, because everybody always come up to me after the show, and mention this is their favourite song too!
You want the audience to ‘celebrate their own gift of insanity’. How is insanity a gift?
I think we all have a trigger for madness within ourselves to some degree, and the more we acknowledge it, explore it and allow our “emotional madness” to come out in a healthy and creative way, the easier it is to recognise it in others, and build better relationships (both with others and with ourselves), which are not based on judgement, but on understanding.
So the next time you take a walk in your neighbourhood and the old crazy bat next door comes out to shout at you and accuse you of spying on her, instead of feeling uneasy, stop for a minute and chat with her. You’ll both be surprised at what you can learn through each other!
I hope the audience will enjoy seeing different types of madness portrayed in my cabaret, listening to some beautiful quirky songs, and abandoning their judgement while being captivated by the beautiful playing of Artemis, and hopefully by my multiple personalities too!