Lip Service – Helena Rubenstien and the principles of feminism. (Theatre Review)

Linden Wilkinson and Amanda Muggleton.

Lip Service

Ensemble Theatre, 17 August – 30 September

You can grab your tickets here.

Images: Prudence Upton

Freud is evoked many times in Lip Service. John Misto appropriately calls forth the common problem women of Helena Rubenstein’s day suffered in their efforts to emancipate in the shadow of the great narrator. While Freud was battling for the psychoanalytic narrative with Jung and Adler, Rubenstein was living in Paris with her husband, perfecting her already enormously successful skin care range and running a small publishing house devoted to the publicity of her product and publishing books like Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. By the time Freud published his paper entitled ‘The History of the Psychoanalytic Movement’ that established him as the dominant voice in mind diagnosis, Helena Rubenstein was setting up her empire in New York City where she would come to dominate the world market in cosmetics and skin cream. Now a force in the diagnosis and treatment of female subjects, Freud proposed ideas such as Seduction Theory (that people suffering from the trauma of sexual abuse were fantasizing they were abused rather than recounting facts which led to the theory that women lie about being raped), penis envy and the castration complex as the root cause of ambition in women. He disparaged the clitoral orgasm and presumed an original superiority in the male that is socially induced. As Rubenstein and Arden emphatically told the world their cosmetics were about courage and getting women out of the house, the world sank into the male fantasy that cosmetics are about seducing men, and have nothing to do with female power (in the same way straight men think lesbianism is all about them). Like Flaubert’s denigration of romance novels, the male fantasy that ‘female make-up is about men’ is alive and well today and has heavily influenced the way that feminism has approached this exclusively female subject.


Linden Wilkinson and Amanda Muggleton.


In the process of elaborating a theory of sexuality, Freud brought to light something that had been operative all along though it remained implicit, hidden, unknown: the sexual indifference that underlies the truth of any science, the logic of every discourse. This is brought strongly to the fore in Lip Service when Misto reminds us the definitions of female sexuality are always in response to men. In fact, this sexuality is never defined with respect to any sex but the masculine. Freud does not see two sexes whose differences are articulated in the act of heterosexual intercourse, nor does he see two sexes expressed in art or business. The feminine is always described in terms of a deficiency or atrophy, as the other side of the sex that alone holds a monopoly on value: the male sex. Helena Rubenstein didn’t just have to work herself twice as hard to achieve half as much (she moved to London with $100,000 in earned capital to establish her business there because women were not granted loans – no wonder she didn’t want to lose it in taxes) she had to fight the popular idea (consistent in the marketplace with the rise of the female entrepreneur) that her entire sexual, intellectual and business development is governed by her lack of and therefore long standing jealousy of and demand for, the male organ. (Penis envy) Women’s entire sexual, psychological and entrepreneurial evolution is never characterized with reference to the female sex itself. Freud’s legacy continues today embodied in our statements regarding the frivolity and expense of feminine activities which overlook the fact that the female sex may have its own ‘specificity.’

For Rubenstein, makeup and face cream were always about power and emancipation. John Misto honours this in Lip Service with a reverse compliment to Freud by evoking him through the weakened state of the hyper-masculine. Husbands are discarded when they break social contract, while the women joyfully laugh at the realization they broke the contract first, by evoking masculine power. Rubenstein’s difficult relationships with her sons and Patrick O’Higgins is never turned on the great Madame; rather John Misto gives Rubenstein a break and allows her a measure of humanity that includes a son that was on his own trajectory and accountable for himself outside of the oppressive mother. Lip Service is light and funny it is true, but Misto allows it to beat a strong heart, constantly guided by his clear overwhelming love for his subject. Perhaps we would have liked to see Rubenstein valued with more clarity for her accomplishments, but Misto’s very clear respect and love for her shine through with a warmth and enveloping adherence to facts in Rubenstein’s life. He has drawn strong, interesting female characters here that embody their contradictory philosophies and steely affection, and is properly supported in director Nicole Buffoni who calls forth wonderful performances and keeps tensions and energy high in a play that is quite long.

Amanda Muggleton and Tim Draxl.

It’s all pure joy for Amanda Muggleton who is clearly thrilled to be on the Ensemble stage, relaxing into her role with practiced ease. Her piercing eyes reach out at the audience, contacting and enveloping such that we draw close to her world and feel swept into the questions Misto (and Rubenstein herself) pose. Amanda Muggleton is beautifully supported by Linden Wilkinson as Elizabeth Arden and Tim Draxl as Patrick O’Higgins. Linden Wilkinson brings her own stamp to Elizabeth Arden, fleshing out Misto’s beautiful writing to find another steely woman thriving on the spirited competition (laced with love, respect and genuine affection) between herself and Rubenstein. Tim Draxl calls forth a sweet naive charm in his portrayal of O’Higgins that successfully conveys the conflicted feelings of those close to Helena Rubenstein. Accents are strong, thanks to Nick Curnow’s coaching and costumes are a pure delight (you’ll love the adherence to detail and the stroll down memory lane) thanks to Margaret Gill. Peggy Carter dives in on the difficult task of making up Helena Rubenstein and makes a success of her daunting role. Christopher Page gives us nuanced lighting that enhances mood rather than imposes, as does Daryl Wallis with his lovely advertisements that end up taking us on a journey through time. Nicole Buffoni (assisted by Shaun Rennie) gathers all this together on Anna Gardiner’s design, allowing us to be fully transported into a world that feels remarkably real.

Lip Service is a joyful night at the theatre that still manages to ask important questions that make it relevant today. It’s a delicious romp on the one hand, and a respectful homage on the other. It’s light and witty, but also long and detailed, encompassing as best it can in just over two hours, the extraordinary accomplishments of an extraordinary woman.

Amanda Muggleton.