It’s surprising that the encounter between screen goddess Mae West and avant-garde photographer Diane Arbus is only now being fictionalised more than 50 years on. One made a career out of looking good through heightened artifice, the other from looking at ordinary, even marginalised people and revealing their true selves. They were intelligent women of very different generations, with very different ideas about how to be independent.

Melita Jurisic and Diana Glenn in Melbourne Theatre Company’s Arbus & West. Photo © Jeff Busby

Arbus’ photos and feature story from that day in 1964 give tantalising hints of an extraordinary clash of ideas and meeting of minds. Stephen Sewell’s new play Arbus & West is an insightful, funny, occasionally obvious and delightfully elusive interpretation of what may have happened, brought to life by three talented, experienced actors on top form.

West and Ruby, her dresser and de facto PA and friend, are expecting a male photographer, so when Arbus arrives for the photoshoot the encounter almost ends before it begins. West, dolled up in satin, lace and long platinum blonde waves, is immediately suspicious of this woman with short hair dressed in unflattering masculine clothes. With a mix of respect and quiet manipulation, Arbus starts bringing her subject around, though uncertainty lingers as West and Ruby, fearing a scam, try to contact the editor who organised the shoot.

The actress, who believes in contact from the afterlife, also begins to wonder whether Arbus has a message from her childhood friend. She was murdered long ago in shocking circumstances, which Sewell suggests had a profound impact on the pubescent West. It’s key to West’s revelations about her love of sexual adventure and fierce desire to be independent from men, but as Arbus probes with words and camera, there are doubts about how much freedom West has actually enjoyed during a lifetime of carefully constructed allure. Simultaneously, there’s a sense of fragility about Arbus’ independence from her wealthy parents and patriarchal society’s expectations – right from the get-go, as the play begins with a flash-forward about her suicide several years later.

Melita Jurisic in Melbourne Theatre Company’s Arbus & West. Photo © Jeff Busby

Sewell’s script is dense with dialogue and meaning, but crackles with sharp insights and witty lines – sometimes West’s own brilliant quips, but probably also some of his own clever devising. The slow duel between West and Arbus, with Ruby intervening out of concern and exasperation, becomes a little repetitive at times however, with the small, unchanging semi-circular set adding to the sense that these three characters are going round in circles. Ultimately Arbus & West flies by, however, and leaves one certain that neither of these artists, nor their encounter, can ever be truly known. There’s a compelling moment of mystery between them at the end that makes sure of that.

Directed by Melbourne Theatre Company’s Associate Artistic Director Sarah Goodes, this production is blessed with three actors who embrace their characters and respect each others’. Four-time Helpmann Award winner Melita Jurisic is extraordinary as West, nailing that slow, seductive Queens-accented voice, and moving with an artificiality that started to hurt long ago. Diana Glenn, best known for TV drama The Slap, makes her MTC debut as Arbus with a finely calibrated balance of confidence and vulnerability. In the role of Ruby, Green Room Award-winner Jennifer Vuletic also steps out with MTC for the first time, conveying her character’s practicality, strength and sympathy.

Diana Glenn in Melbourne Theatre Company’s Arbus & West. Photo © Jeff Busby

Renée Mulder’s single set struggles when required to double as West’s flash-forward backstage dressing room, but neatly encapsulates the fading star’s movie-set-like apartment. A white, gold and beige mix of glamour and uncomfortable perfection, its few pieces of Louis XIV-style furniture and masses of flowers speak volumes. Most striking of all is the large backlit window, whose heavy curtains are opened and closed to reveal and conceal. Mulder’s costumes also succinctly evoke era and character, with West’s various glittering, flowing gowns exposing very little flesh of this woman still trying to be a goddess in her 70s.

A subtle, tantalising cocktail of truth and fiction, Arbus and West goes down a treat and leaves one wanting more. At the very least, audiences will exit the theatre eager for a look at those photos the great dame apparently hated.

Melbourne Theatre Company’s Arbus & West is at Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne