Norma Jeane Baker of Troy
About this commission
“Whishaw slowly dons Monroe’s pleated ivory dress from The Seven Year Itch, taking on the damage done to her, as Fleming’s soprano—another exemplar of legendary beauty—soars with the force of an uncontainable soul.” —The New Yorker
A World Premiere Shed Commission
It is 1964. An office manager has hired one of his stenos to come in at night and type out his translation of Euripides’s Helen, but his obsession with the recently dead Marilyn Monroe kidnaps the translation.
Norma Jeane Baker of Troy is a spoken and sung new work by poet, essayist, and scholar Anne Carson that reconsiders the stories of two iconic women—Marilyn Monroe and Helen of Troy—from their point of view.
Starring actor Ben Whishaw and soprano Renée Fleming, and intimately and powerfully staged by director Katie Mitchell in The Shed’s 500-seat Griffin Theater, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy explores who has the right to tell a woman’s story, and how those stories reverberate through our culture.
“The #MeToo movement has given us new ways to think about female icons like Helen or Marilyn Monroe, new ways to revolve the traditional male version of such events 360 degrees and find different, deeper sorrows there,” writer Anne Carson says.
In The Works
With Norma Jeane Baker Of Troy, Anne Carson has written a new melologue—a performance piece that is alternately spoken and sung. Here the renowned poet, translator, and classicist speaks to the unique process of bringing together the myths of Helen of Troy and Marilyn Monroe.
What makes the mythic personalities and stories of Helen and Marilyn Monroe relevant to our 21st-century world?
Norma Jeane Baker of Troy is a play formed in the shadow of an ancient Greek play by Euripides called Helen. It has long fascinated me how Euripides was able, in the mid-5th century BC, to take an ancient myth and revolve it 360 degrees so that we are looking at the story and its meaning from the inside out. So he takes the myth of Helen, legendarily the harlot of Troy and destroyer of two civilizations, and says, What if we consider all this from the woman’s point of view? His play gives us a Helen who is not a seductress but a rape victim, not so much concerned with sex or self as with longing for the child she had to abandon when she was snatched away from home. The emotional focus of Helen’s character is sorrow for her lost daughter, Hermione. Euripides weaves this emotion onto the broader canvas of the Trojan War and the sorrow of war in general. The #MeToo movement has given us new ways to think about female icons like Helen or Marilyn Monroe, new ways to revolve the traditional male version of such events 360 degrees and find different, deeper sorrows there. At the same time, in Euripides’s play the Helen who went to Troy is a cloud, a phantasm, a piece of fake news. This raises ancient questions, which are also somehow hotly relevant to our own time, the questions What is knowledge? Who is to be believed? How can we ever say that we know anything?
What is the relationship between the verse sections of Norma Jeane Baker of Troy and the “History of War” sections of the text that are formatted in a prose lesson plan outline and deal with the translation of certain Greek terms into English?
Euripides’s Helen is a tragicomedy, a genre he invented. It allows absurdist situations and semi-comic characters to drift downstage into darkness and doubt. In a similar way I tried to let dark realities materialize dimly, through language lessons, in the “History of War” sections that alternate with narrative/lyric scenes. Language is a way into moral life. I believe in words and their power to clarify belief systems, even when these systems are confused, contradictory, or crazy.
The story of Helen appears in the introductory sections of your book Autobiography of Red, as well. Is there a resonance in this myth for you that runs through your own work (for example, from Autobiography of Red to Norma Jeane Baker of Troy)?
Autobiography of Red was based on fragments of the 7th-century BC lyric poet Stesichoros, who was himself intensely interested in Helen and her myth, so I may have borrowed the obsession from him—strategically. The truth is, Helen does not like to be left behind: she blinded Stesichoros for doing so.
You’ve written and experimented with many literary genres over your career. What role do considerations of genre play in your writing process, as you’re writing?
Genre is basically a matter of occasion, e.g. if you’re invited to a wedding you write a wedding song.
When did you start writing with theatrical settings in mind (if you do)? How did this shift (if it is one) in your writing come about?
When I met [my partner] Currie I began to think about spatialization. To him a text is a sculpture. This astonished me.
You’ve written Decreation, an opera, without musical settings. When or how did you become interested in writing for the singing voice? (Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, Mile-Long Opera)
I was always interested to have “musical” texts like Decreation sung by real singers, but nobody except me ever thought this a good idea.
What drew you to Ben Whishaw and Renée Fleming for Norma Jeane Baker of Troy?
Ben Whishaw is the best actor around, Renée Fleming the best singer, and they are both really nice people.
Renée Fleming is one of the most highly-acclaimed singers of our time, performing on the stages of the world’s greatest opera houses, theaters, and concert halls. In 2013, President Obama awarded her the US National Medal of Arts. Winner of four Grammy awards, Fleming has sung for momentous occasions ranging from the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony to the Diamond Jubilee Concert for HM Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.
Fleming earned a Tony Award nomination for her performance in the 2018 Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. Her new album Renée Fleming: Broadway was released in September by Decca. She is heard on the soundtracks of the 2018 Best Picture Oscar winner The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and she provided Julianne Moore’s singing voice for the film Bel Canto.
As artistic advisor to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Fleming spearheads a collaboration with the National Institutes of Health focused on music, health, and neuroscience. Among her awards are the Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Award, Germany’s Cross of the Order of Merit, France’s Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, and Honorary Membership in the Royal Academy of Music.
Ben Whishaw is an award-winning actor. He starred as Grenouille in the critically acclaimed Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Other film credits include My Brother Tom (Most Promising Newcomer, British Independent Film Awards), I’m Not There (The Independent Spirit Awards’ prestigious Robert Altman Award), Enduring Love, Layer Cake, Stoned, The Tempest, Brideshead Revisited, Bright Star, The International, Suffragette, The Lobster, The Zero Theorem, In the Heart of the Sea, Lilting, Cloud Atlas, The Danish Girl, and the role of Q in the latest James Bond films Skyfall and Spectre. Whishaw also voiced the title role of Paddington Bear in Paddington and Paddington 2.
Whishaw’s television performances include A Very English Scandal (2019 Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Limited Series, or Motion Picture Made for Television; Critics Choice Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Movie or Limited Series), Criminal Justice (2009 Emmy Award for Best Performance by an Actor and the Royal Television Society, UK [RTS] Award for Best Male Actor), in addition to a BAFTA TV Award nomination. Further credits include ITV’s The Booze Cruise, Nathan Barley, BBC’s The Hour, Richard II (BAFTA Winner for Best Leading Actor), and London Spy.
For stage, Whishaw received an Olivier Award nomination for his performance in His Dark Materials (Old Vic, following transfer from National Theatre). Other theater credits include Mojo (Harold Pinter Theatre), Peter and Alice (Noel Coward Theatre), The Pride (Lucille Lortel Theatre), Cock (Royal Court Theatre), Some Trace of Her and The Seagull (National Theatre), Leaves of Glass (Soho Theatre), Hamlet (Old Vic), Bakkhai and Against (Almeida Theatre), Julius Caesar (The Bridge Theatre), and The Crucible on Broadway. Whishaw appeared as Michael Banks opposite Emily Blunt and Emily Mortimer in the sequel to Disney’s Mary Poppins, Mary Poppins Returns, and has since completed filming Armando Lanmucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield.
Katie Mitchell has directed over 100 productions in a career spanning 28 years. She has directed 74 theater productions including in London, Amsterdam, Milan, Berlin, Stockholm, Cologne, Vienna, Salzburg and Hamburg. She has directed 28 operas in the UK, Holland, France, Germany, and Denmark. In the UK, she has directed nine productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company, 19 for the National Theatre, and 12 for the Royal Court Theatre. She has been an associate director at all three organizations.
Mitchell is currently resident artist at the Royal Court Theatre (London), the Schaubühne Theatre (Berlin), and the Deutsches Schauspielhaus (Hamburg). She has just finished a seven-year artist residency at the Aix-en-Provence Opera Festival (France). In 2015, the Stadsschouwburg Theatre in Amsterdam held a retrospective of her opera and theater work, presenting eight productions from across Europe.
In 2005, Mitchell directed a stage adaptation of Virginia’s Woolf’s novel The Waves, bringing theater and cinema together in a new art form called live cinema. She has subsequently directed over 15 live cinema productions, many of which have toured worldwide. These groundbreaking productions have changed the way in which video is used in theater.
Mitchell is a climate change activist and an outspoken feminist, advocating for equal pay for women in theater and opera. As an associate director at the National Theatre, she was the first director to persuade the management to make a professional production for children under five.
Katie Mitchell has won numerous awards for her work. In 2009, she was presented with the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her services to theater.
Paul Clark is co-artistic director of the London-based performance company CLOD ENSEMBLE and has written scores for all its productions to date—ranging from totally acoustic works to multi-speaker installations. Recent performances include Silver Swan (Tate Modern, Turbine Hall) for seven singers; Under Glass (Sadler’s Wells), a surround-sound installation; An Anatomie (Sadler’s Wells) for electronics, live orchestra, and a rock band; and Must (Public Theater, New York, with Peggy Shaw) for a jazz trio.
Clark has written music for and with a hugely diverse range of musicians from Opera North, Manchester Camerata, Österreichisches Ensemble für Neue Musik, and Welsh National Opera to Dangermouse, Yukihiro Isso, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, and Mark E Smith (The Fall). He has created numerous cross-disciplinary works in galleries, concert halls, and theaters.
Clark has written dozens of scores for theater in the UK and internationally. He has a longstanding collaboration with Katie Mitchell, for whom he has written over 20 scores, and with Gare St Lazare, with whom he created Here All Night (Lincoln Center, New York, and The Abbey, Dublin), an acclaimed words-and-music piece using texts by Samuel Beckett.
“…the female voice—sometimes hidden, sometimes forbidden, sometimes misunderstood, and sometimes heard loud and clear—reverberates through culture…”
“There is a simple metaphor at the heart of this production about how the female voice—sometimes hidden, sometimes forbidden, sometimes misunderstood, and sometimes heard loud and clear—reverberates through culture. In the spirit of form meeting content, the soundtrack is made entirely from samples of Renée’s extraordinary voice—sometimes hidden, sometimes loud and clear. We recorded every note, every consonant and vowel sound, creating new ‘instruments’ out of which her live voice slowly emerges. Everything you hear—a double bass, percussion, a police siren, the air conditioning, otherworldly drones—is made out of one woman’s voice.”
— Paul Clark, Composer
Location and dates
Sunday at 3:00 pm
Previews April 6 and 7
- Running time: Approximately 90 minutes
- Doors open 30 minutes before curtain
- No intermission
- Standard assisted listening devices (FM) are available at the entrance to The Griffin Theater
- Membership does not guarantee ticket availability, so we encourage you to book early
- All tickets sales are final; times and performers are subject to change
- Performers smoke during the show
- Recommended for ages 11 and up
Robert Currie, Collaborating Artist
Lisa Hurst, Production Stage Manager (United Kingdom rehearsals and New York)
Laura Deards, Production Stage Manager (United Kingdom rehearsals)
Katherine Dilworth, Deputy Stage Manager
Claire F. Martin, Assistant Director
Harry Johnson, Sound and Music Assistant
Lucy Martin, Assistant Costume Designer
John Higgins and Hugo Trebels, United Kingdom Production, Media Mayhem
Gabriel Firestone, Associate Set Designer
Allyson Combs, Props Supervisor
Chris Kerr, Men’s Tailoring
Will Skeet, “Marilyn” Dress and Undergarments
David Plunkett, Ladies’ Tailoring for Renée Fleming
Jeff Churchill, Jitterbug Boy, “Marilyn” Shoe Reconstruction
Giuseppe Cannas, “Marilyn” Makeup Consultant
Sarah Lou Packham, Wig Supervisor
Stephen Sury, Production Carpenter
Jason Cohen, Head Props
Seth Huling, Head Sound
Maytté Martinez, Head Electrician
Max Gordon, Keyboard/Conductor/Ableton Operator
Ann Comanar, Head Wardrobe/Dresser to Renée Fleming
Jason Frey, Assistant Wardrobe/Dresser to Ben Whishaw
Loryn Pretorius, Hair and Make-up Supervisor
Scenery provided by Tom Carroll Scenic. Lighting equipment provided by 4Wall Lighting. Additional audio equipment provided by Sound Associates.
Laura Aswad, Producer
Marc Warren, Director of Production
Isaac Katzanek, Production Manager
Sarah Pier, Production Supervisor
Joe DiMartino, Technical Director
Stephanie Quaye, Associate Producer
Thank you to our partners
The creation of new work at The Shed is generously supported by the Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Commissioning Fund and The Shed Commissioners.
Major support for live productions at The Shed is provided by the Charina Endowment Fund.