Madonna is one of the few noteworthy living pop singers who haven’t yet performed in South Africa. So the opportunity to experience a veritable icon (and I don’t use that word loosely) strutting her stuff in London was one I decided not to miss; credit card bills be dammed!

The Confessions World Tour – on the heels of the hit album, Confessions on a Dance Floor – had already played to sold-out concerts across North America by the time it reached Europe. The show garnered much media interest thanks to predictions of it being the biggest selling concert tour by a woman ever (it took Cher years to break the last record) and the now infamous “disco crucifix” number (more on that later).

While she’d performed in some stadia on this tour, Madonna’s London shows (there were eight) had the benefit of being held in a relatively small, seated venue – Wembley Arena. After Robbie Williams’ concert in Pretoria, I’d sworn off stadium events; too many people, too much aggression and very little chance of actually seeing the performer. The arena was a much better option; just about everyone in the venue would have had a good view of the stage and, of course, the star.

As with all great theatre, much of the impact of a performance comes from setting the right kind of mood. And the Confessions Tour certainly excels in that – right from its opening.

As the lights dim, giant curved video screens on stage flicker into life with atmospheric images of Madonna and horses – in a stable, on a barren plain – while the sound of thudding hooves (or a heartbeat) mingles with foreboding musical drones.

A giant mirror ball encrusted with Swarovski crystals descends from the ceiling and unfurls like some erotic flower, revealing Madonna in black equestrian gear. Dancers emerge onto the stage complete with manes and bridles as the place erupts with the frenetic baseline of Future Lovers. She presides over the “man-horses” at her feet, singularly dominating the arena. Few people stay in their seats – and then she’s singing the disco classic I Feel Love.

She’s less than a meter away from me and I admit that I’m in awe. The experience feels surreal – no, unreal. One of the most famous women in history – who’s been imprinted into my brain for much of my life through countless images – is within touching distance. A friend stands next to me with his mouth open.

And so it begins. The Confessions Tour is composed of two hours of songs largely from the new CD, but there’s still time for classics like Lucky Star, Like a Virgin (cue video of galloping horses falling over each other intercut with x-rays of her broken bones), Ray of Light and Erotica. The older songs are given new musical interpretations; remixed and restyled – at times dramatically different from the versions we’ve come to know – thanks to producer and on-stage keyboardist and musical director Stuart Price.

Madonna spends probably less than ten minutes off-stage; otherwise singing and dancing throughout. It’s been rumoured that she insists that the air conditioning at each venue be switched off so as to not affect her voice. If so, it pays off; the show is entirely live and her voice is clear and strong throughout. Through all the dancing and writhing on the stage the 48 year old singer is almost entirely pitch perfect.

For the audience, especially those thronging at the stage and compelled by the beat to jump up and down, it’s a sweat-fest of note. At times it feels little different from the perspiring throbbing ambiance I’ll later experience at a gay club after the concert. It appears as if every gay man in London has come to worship at the feet of Madonna.

…a multimedia extravaganza of lighting, sound, achingly evocative video imagery, skilled choreography…

There’s little direct vocal interaction with the audience. Aside from a couple of quips and a brief chat halfway through (it was her son’s birthday the day before, how this diverse audience shows that we can overcome differences…) she prefers to communicate with your more primal senses.

Madonna performing on a “disco crucifix” proves to be powerful and evocative but hardly the stuff of blasphemy. It’s called “metaphor” people, and takes place while she sings Live to Tell: one of a handful of quieter moments in the disco-heavy extravaganza. In this case, she carries through a message about suffering and intolerance. She later shouts out, “Fuck stupidity, fuck ignorance, fuck intolerance!”

Multi-religious and cultural themes occur throughout: Dancers ‘tattooed’ with the Jewish star of David and the Muslim crescent dance together (this while Lebanon burned and terrorists threatened to down airliners across the Atlantic); and she performs an astonishingly soulful duet with Israeli singer Yitzhak Sinwani on Issac.

Madonna has proven to be a genius at breaking conventions and combining the unexpected in the popular realm: cowboys and electronica; religion and sexuality; art and commerce – to name a few. The show is a clever mix of popular culture references, images, sounds and ideas, blended into an overwhelming theatrical experience.

Madonna does a surprisingly effective ‘Rock Chick’, complete with guitar, on I Love New York – “I hope you don’t take this song personally, after all, this is where I live now…” – and Ray of Light, and ends the show with a camp disco crescendo of La Isla Bonita, Lucky Star and Hung Up: all Copacabana, Saturday Night Fever and Abba, with and sweat pouring off her body. Gold heart-shaped balloons erupt from the ceiling, the words “have you confessed?” appear on screen, the lights come up and it’s all over. I can barely walk; my legs feel as if they’ve been replaced by wooden poles.

Many describe Madonna as a performer foremost and a singer second, which is borne out by The Confessions Tour experience. It’s a multimedia extravaganza of lighting, sound, achingly evocative video imagery, skilled choreography, all centred on the creative and relentless energy of its star and her dancers. She may be a mere two years away from turning fifty, but I can say with some certainty that the Queen of Pop is not quite ready to hand over that crown just yet.

The Confessions Tour next travels to France, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Russia and Japan.

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