There was a huge cheer at London’s O2 Arena when Madonna divested herself of a giant Matador cape without mishap. The last time Madonna performed here, she fell off the stage. She stayed on her feet this time, more or less, but that doesn’t mean she played it safe. She descended from the arena ceiling in a cage, writhed on the top of a spiral staircase and climbed up a stripper’s pole to spin around on the stomach of a revolving nun in underwear.
She certainly did not seem cowed by returning to the scene of her Brits disaster. She cavorted, stretched, swished, flipped and flopped with an extravagant physicality belying or defying her advancing years. At 57, Madonna’s trademark performance style remains an unholy cross between pop extravaganza and exercise class that can feel almost as exhausting to watch as it must be to participate.
Reviewing a Madonna show can feel like an exercise in listing logistics. This is her tenth world tour, and she has long since mastered the art of combining highly choreographed theatrical spectacle with the big musical dynamics of pop celebration. The Rebel Heart production features a hydraulic hi-res screen that tilts and shifts and doubles as a surface for dancers to scale. A crucifix shaped catwalk extends into every area of the arena floor to a heart Madonna refers to as “the head of the penis. Things always get heated up when I get here.” There are six musicians, twenty dancers and ten major costume changes. It is a dazzling hi-tech, multimedia melange of light and sound, with eye and mind boggling set pieces featuring fantasy medieval executioners, martial art fighting geishas, pole dancing nuns, simulated sex shows and an orgiastic re-enactment of the last supper in which Madonna winds up spread eagled on the table being groped by Christ and his Apostles. It is inarguably another fantastic display of showbiz shock and awe from a mistress of the form.
She brought out a ukulele, that least hi-tech of instruments, to serenade us with versions of True Blue and La Vie En Rose that offered a refreshing lightness and intimacy. There was a time when Madonna’s voice was her weakest link but perhaps only because everything else she was doing was so supremely slick. She can sing when she wants to, especially when she’s not trying to do vinyasa power yoga at the same time.
The real treat, though, is the way Madonna herself connects through the sensory overload. For someone who craves the limelight so fiercely, she has often seemed stilted and forced in it, her personality diminished to something oddly impersonal. Maybe it is the intense focus demanded on stage by her acrobatic style of singing and dancing combined with the often overwhelming aspects of highly stylised set piece with their provocative mix of art, sex and religion. Perhaps it is only when she falls down that fans get a glimpse of the real person behind all the smoke and mirrors.
But there is a lightness of mood and touch to her latest tour that I haven’t see from Madonna in a very long time, perhaps since the earliest days of her rise to superstardom. Her smile is genuine and unforced, rambling between song monologues sound spontaneous and unscripted and her pleasure in performing is undeniable and infectious. She delighted the London audience by dragging out Graham Norton for an absurdly improvised funky dance that seems likely to become a YouTube meme. In her return to the O2, Madonna did not put a foot wrong.