Arts / Shining a light on licentious Lola

Caroline Lee in “The Exotic Lives of Lola Montez”… “It was my job to bring this character to life – she’s funny, she’s witty and the play traverses a number of different times.” Photo by Aldona Kmiec

FACT and fiction are inextricably linked when talking about the infamous 19th-century danseuse and libertine, Lola Montez.

Born in Limerick, Ireland, but self-styled Donna Lola Montez, she married often and bigamously, was given a title by her lover, King Ludwig of Bavaria, shocked the diggers on the Ballarat goldfields with her disgraceful “Spider Dance”, had a musical written about her and horsewhipped the editor of the “Ballarat Times”, Henry Seekamp, after a bad review.

That last story, according to Caroline Lee, “feels absolutely true” and indeed “The Age” in Melbourne at the time reported that Seekamp, a Eureka hero, retaliated by trying to tear her hair out.

She should know. Lee plays La Lola in a show touring Victoria and coming soon to Tuggeranong Arts Centre. A four-time Victorian Green Room awardee, she is a successful novelist, a burlesque and straight theatre performer and an expert trainer of health professionals in the art of therapeutic improvisation.

She knows all about Montez, dancer and possibly murderess, but her guess is as good as anyone’s when it comes to the exact nature of the notorious spider or tarantula dance, other than that it involved a frenzied on-stage search through her undies for a spider.

“Nobody knows, but a lot of people have done different interpretations and we definitely do our own interpretation as well,” Lee says mysteriously.

Caroline Lee in “The Exotic Lives of Lola Montez”.

The idea for a show came when her colleagues Moira Finucane and Patrick White Playwright Award winner Jackie Smith were doing a burlesque show in regional Victoria and locals said: “This is the raciest thing that’s come to town since Lola Montez”.

Smith got researching and became intrigued not only by the social life of the goldfields where “all sorts of things were going on” but by the fact that while people knew the name, they knew zero about Lola Montez.

What she found was extraordinary – a kind of pre-feminist tale of fiction mixed with fact that merited a full-length play, now directed by Finucane. It was true, for instance, that Montez was a female libertine and the mistress of Franz Liszt, Alexandre Dumas and King Ludwig, but she also went on tour in Britain and the US to deliver a series of moral lectures written by the reverend Charles Chauncey Burr. Even after her death, many different tombstones were claimed to be hers.

“Jackie did the research, but it was my job to bring this character to life – she’s funny, she’s witty and the play traverses a number of different times,” Lee says.

But, she stresses, it’s not a strict biography, although there is “a chronological underpinning in the sense that it’s storytelling… but the first scene is not necessarily the beginning of her life”.

The style of the show involves singing and dance, and she is working with Parisian dancer Holly Durant, who becomes “in a sense another incarnation of Lola… we see different aspects of Lola rather than just listening to me for one hour and 10 minutes – it’s well structured”.

In Lee’s view, the way Smith has written the script, the audience gets drawn into her personality and her charm, and there are even moments when it’s quite moving.

“The Exotic Lives of Lola Montez”, Tuggeranong Arts Centre, September 13. Bookings to trybooking.com

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