After cancelling a handful of shows – including two London dates – due to injury, Madonna has finally arrived at London’s Palladium for opening night. By her standards, it’s a ludicrously small venue. This lofty, gilded space has hosted a few other musical legends in its time – Frank Sinatra and The Beatles to name a couple – but in bringing her latest record ‘Madame X’ to life, Madonna takes the dramatic brief from a venue as well known for theatre as for music, and runs away with it.
Much like a theatre production, the gig is split into a number of different segments, and the ever adaptable Madame X – with her enterprising approach to the current jobs market – is the versatile thread running through. During opener ‘God Control’ she’s a fighter, dodging gunfire, and fighting off police officers with riot shields: “Death to the patriarchy,” she yells as they bundle off her into one of the set’s moving compartments.
In a surreal interlude she turns comedian and addresses the room from behind a doctor’s screen, cracking jokes about small penises, and pretending to give birth: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is what it’s like to have Mozart coming out of your pussy!” In the disco banger ‘I Don’t Search I Find’ she’s a spy under interrogation. And later on, she’s a cheerleader for Lisbon: kicking back in a blue-tiled fado bar for a reworking of ‘La Isla Bonita’, inviting all manner of new friends – including Cape Verde group Orquestra Batukadeiras – to join her on stage. During this last segment, Madonna is wide-eyed and awestruck; it’s clear that collaborating with these musicians is what really makes her tick.
At times, a little like the more ham-fisted moments of ‘Madame X’, the messaging can feel a bit overbearing. The world is going to shit, but Madonna really loves Portugal – this much is clear.
Continually, Madonna plays on the intimacy of the West End theatre, at one point marching into the audience in search of a spare seat. Cosying up next to a bemused fan, she takes a swig of his beer. “I’m about to drink your backwash!” she declares merrily. “Do you come to the theatre often?” Quite understandably, he’s lost for words.
At times, the affair feels like a pop panto: when Madonna appears in a resplendent feathery hat and her customary eye-patch, she could easily be mistaken for a knee-slapping Captain Hook. This only heightens as the superstar leads the Palladium through a chant of “One, two, cha, cha, cha” (from ‘Madame X’s lead single ‘Medellín’) later in the set, demanding they shout louder and louder. When a stage-hand brings out a chair, Madonna seizes the opportunity to reference her injury, while cracking a dirty joke. “Usually I kneel for it [this interlude] for like, 20 minutes,” she says. “I’m good at that, so I’ve been told”.
And the wisecracks keep coming. There’s a truly bizarre charity auction where Madonna takes a selfie onstage, and flogs the resulting polaroid to someone in the front row for a grand; when a man gets onto her stage and waves a wad of cash at her, she’s visibly fuming. “I don’t care,” she tells him, waving his money away. “You walked on my stage without permission”. As the whole chaotic saga finally draws to a close, £50 notes strewn across the stage, she sighs at her UK audience’s inability to close a deal efficiently. “Are you guys confused about Brexit?” she quips.
She also makes fun of herself, poking fun at her own inability to arrive on time (on the US leg of the tour, she was late multiple times – tonight she’s a mere 15 minutes behind). There’s even a niche remark about London’s noise curfews. “There’s an iron curtain…” she states, ominously. “I’ve been warned by Westminster Council”.
Largely centred on ‘Madame X’ tonight is light on the classics: there’s a snippet from ‘Express Yourself’, performed alongside her daughters Mercy, Stella and Estere. She sneaks in a brief flourish from ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ into an instrumental section. ‘American Life’, ‘Human Nature’ and an ever-so-slightly underwhelming ‘Vogue’ appear in full – the penultimate song is a thumping rendition of ‘Like A Prayer’. A minimal performance of ‘Frozen’ – Madonna seated behind a screen, a larger-than-life projection of her daughter Lourdes dancing around her – is the goosebump inducing moment of the night amid the visual overload.
As it happens, the production is so intricate and absorbing that you barely miss the more familiar tunes and numerous overlooked cuts from ‘Madame X’ – the self-referential ‘Crazy’ and sinister apocalypse banger ‘Future’ – seem to find their feet. For all of her dramatic personas on ‘Madame X’, tonight is largely about Madonna herself. By the end, it feels like we know her a lot better.
It’s strange to witness the Queen of Pop in this light. As disorientating as it feels, the tension of seeing an untouchable legend letting her guard down makes this show incredibly special. It also feels like a brave move from an artist who could do just about anything. Then again, risk-taking and reinvention is what makes Madonna an icon.