Sad Sad Tears of a Clown. March 2016.

Dear Rowley,

Didn’t your mouth just hit the pavement when you saw the YouTube footage of Madonna’s one night and one night only Tears of a Clown show? OMFG darling! Performed in Melbourne in front of a small, hand-picked crowd of the faithful at midnight, the act was quite simply mesmerising. I couldn’t have been more shocked if Ed Sheeran blacked-up and sang Swanee at the O2.

For once Wikipedia was horribly accurate when it said, ‘In Tears of a Clown Madonna sings acoustic versions of her more unpopular songs while dressed as a clown’. Don’t get me started about the inexplicable dance moves like a pissed auntie at a wedding reception or the stand-up comedy monologues as rough as a badger’s bum that made Lenny Bruce sound like Pam Eyres by comparison.

Though I applaud performers of Madonna’s stature wishing to dial it down and road test more intimate workshop acts, having watched snippets through fingers over eyes I can only sink to my knees and ululate asking ‘why, Madonna, why?’ The performance was basically an existential crisis set to music and very uncomfortable viewing it made too.

A bit of context. Madonna’s epic Rebel Heart tour reached its final destination – Australia – having banked $80 million at the box office. So as an artist Madonna had nothing to prove other than the consistency, athleticism, precision and professionalism that she always brings to the stage. Fans and critics agree it is M’s most spectacular production to date. I have fond memories of Blonde Ambition and Confessions on a Dance Floor but must admit that when Madonna ended Rebel Heart with a 1920s nightclub set it was like watching a champion deliver a knockout punch.

To go from the military precision of Rebel Heart to the shambles that was Tears of a Clown is the equivalent of Maria Callas deserting the Royal Opera House to do a buck and wing number on the corner of Oxford Street at rush hour. So why, as the tour ended, did she decide to risk an underrehearsed concept in an intimate venue that Madonna must have known would be on YouTube before she’d taken her make-up off?

So many aspects of Tears of a Clown are perplexing. This is a woman whose image has made her the darling of the fashion industry for four decades. What possessed her to come on stage wearing a pink nylon clown wig, horizontally striped stockings, a tipsy top hat and make-up reminiscent of a teen slasher movie entitled Faster Clownface! Kill! Kill! Madona’s satin babydoll smock showed her bum (again!) and brought visions of the late, great Beryl Reid in Entertaining Mr Sloane.

God only knows what possessed Madonna to expose her every weak spot as a performer – namely humour, pitch and empathy – on such a bare stage only knee-high to her audience. While untroubled by nerves, the voice was drag show karaoke: Dockyard Doris’s tribute to Madonna. She crucified Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns at the top of the show but appeared not to care that her voice was wobbling like a dowager’s chins.

As an encore Madonna rode around the stage on a child’s tricycle.  Was this an expression of freedom to celebrate the end of the Rebel Heart world tour? If it was, the performance should have been saved for the after party in the privacy afforded by cast and crew. We all know Madonna makes Barbra Streisand look lackadaisical  in the perfectionist department so perhaps Tears of a Clown was a chance to roll her gusset down, crack open a tinny and let off steam in front of her adoring Aussie fans.

On closer inspection, the playlist gave a strong indication of Madonna’s mindset. Nobody’s Perfect, Substitute for Love, Take A Bow and Borderline speak of regret, recrimination and acceptance. All are clearly on Madonna’s mind considering the fact that it looks like she has lost the custody battle for her eldest son Rocco. You’ll recall that Rocco left Madonna’s Rebel Heart tour to spend Christmas with his father Guy Ritchie in the UK and never went back.

The case is still in the courts so I would question the wisdom of Madonna projecting portraits of Rocco behind her when performing Tears of a Clown. It is an artist’s prerogative to express her emotions in her work but I would hazard a guess that being drawn into his mother’s lurid working life was probably what sent Rocco tearing back to the relative normality of life with his father.

To her credit Madonna barely mentioned Rocco into the final stages of her Rebel Heart concert apart from a teary moment in New Zealand. She kept it together even though the papers gleefully reported that she had exposed the nipple of a fan who had been invited on stage. I should think this was business as usual for Madonna not a sign that she was losing the plot. You’d start to worry if she didn’t grab her crotch, squeeze a tit or flash her ass on stage.

So what should we make of Tears of a Clown? As a concept, I cannot imagine that Madonna’s circus stand-up act is going to be her finest hour. Neither do I think her riding round a stage in Melbourne on a child’s tricycle while dressed as a very scary clown will aid the custody battle . Still, I just have to watch five minutes of Rebel Heart to know Madonna is on top of her game. So let’s just call Tears of a Clown a momentary lapse in judgement and taste.