Madonna wants us to wake up. Actually, she wants us to do a lot of things. Come with her to the future. Protect her from her critics. Know that she agrees that America is in turmoil and the finger is pointed at the “psychopath in the White House”. But, above all, remember that she is a provocateur and “freedom fighter” – an artist who is, in the words of James Baldwin, which are fired like gunshots on the screen to open the show, “here to disturb the peace”. And we are in her maverick world now, an eyeball-twisting audiovisual assault of cello-playing nuns and cartwheeling soldiers in gas masks, like The Two Popes meets Hamilton.
Anticipation fizzes around the London Palladium tonight, because this is the debut of the London leg of intimate shows – she cancelled her first earlier in the week due to a knee injury. It would have been hard to play her steely, eye-patched spy at half tilt: there are handstands, a bit where she slides down a grand piano like Roxie Hart and, of course, plenty of straddling her exceptional dancers. Like her 2019 album, she appears as Madame X, a bondage secret agent who threads various nods to her career through her new globetrotting mish-mash of trap, Latin-pop and Afro-Lusophone folk.
This is a show of two halves: the first is an aggressive blast of political messaging and theatre noir that is also a comment – and Madonna doesn’t do subtle – on being under attack herself. She opens with her disco ode to police violence, “God Control”, dressed in a glittering revolutionary outfit; then she’s on the run, pushed and shoved between her cast like a pantomime villain during new song “I Don’t Search I Find”, as phrases like “f*** off” flash overhead. There is more action than a Marvel movie: comic interludes, blowjob innuendos and a bizarre charity auction – during which she proclaims that “Madame X is also a saint” and a ballsy fan gets onstage to try and hand her £1000 cash (she quips that she’ll have to fire her security).
“Vogue”, meanwhile, feels fairly low impact, but other flashbacks are a reminder of her sustained influence on pop culture. At one point, her dancers and three young daughters – Mercy, Stelle and Esthere, dressed in slick Nineties fashion (now fashionable once again) – gather beside her to chorus, “I’m not your bitch” after a rendition of “Express Yourself”. You could say that it’s a cheap shot to bring her family into it, but when she sings her earth mother banger “Frozen” as her other daughter, Lourdes, dances on a projection screen around her, it’s genuinely moving.
The second half of the Madame X Experience allows for some self-discovery. Madonna has long been a cultural tourist but it’s actually this part, dedicated to the music she’s discovered while living in Lisbon, that feels less forced. Here, she drops the wisecracking dominatrix routine and gives a real sense of her respect for the music, as she talks about the beauty of fado. There’s a laidback club scene where she sings “Crazy” without the jarring live AutoTune, while men rub her thighs as she pulls them away (seeming a little vulnerable while asserting her desirability). And she brings out the Orquestra Batukadeiras, from former Portuguese colony Cape Verde, for a rousing display of female solidarity on “Batuka”.
It’s not long before the slow clap of burning rainforest footage and flashes of “warning” are back (yes, we get it, the world has gone to s***!), as Madonna sings her reggae track “Future” while seated at the keys. The finale of “Like A Prayer”, though, seems to suggest emancipation – from the world, or perhaps from herself. She has disturbed the peace alright. This pacey onslaught is a bit like being trapped inside a panic attack. But when she’s not trying to keep up with her own legacy, the show is warm and brilliant.