RUMINATIONS ON THE MELBOURNE CABARET FESTIVAL

Review throw-back: 8th August, 2011.

I was asked by Tommy Bradson to shoot his show in the Melbourne Cabaret Festival last week. I expected the weekend of the festival to provide me with some entertaining shots of a boy in drag, too many glasses of cheap wine and the odd opportunity to hand out swathes of my newly printed business cards.

What I didn’t expect was to come away with a completely different understanding of theatre.

Over the last few months, I’d decided what quality it was that I constantly sought but rarely found in performances: it was subtlety. I think it started with political theatre. I loathe almost all political theatre, because there are few things I hate more than being bludgeoned over the head with A Moral. I’d seen too many productions that had identified A Message and determined that the most effective way to communicate it was to do it obviously and often. Torture is bad. Discrimination is rife. Mental illness is unpleasant and misunderstood. These things are true, of course. But I didn’t want a play that I could summarise on a cue card and staple to my face within the first twelve minutes. And as time went on, I became just as frustrated with non-political theatre. I began to see blatancy everywhere. In writing that gave too much away. In productions directed with a paint roller, rather than with a fine brush. In actors just acting too damn hard, crying and contorting in contrived emotional catharsis, with no detail or definition.

I longed for a production to seduce me, entrance me, beguile me, bewitch me, and then suddenly give me a single line that made all the little references I’d subconsciously picked up on throughout the piece fall into place, so that the plot and the characters bottomed out, and were revealed in all their dizzying depths. I wanted to look back on the rest of the play in a completely new light. I wanted to be shocked. David Mamet once said that ‘a standing ovation can be extorted from the audience. A gasp cannot.’ I wanted to gasp. I wanted writing and performance that I needed time to unravel. I wanted enigma. I wanted simple, unaffected truth.

And then I saw ‘Pirate Rhapsody, Mermaid Requiem’ and ‘Le Gateau Chocolat’ and my paradigm fell apart.

Some background. I designed and opped a show called ‘NightMinds’ that The Electric Company took to the Adelaide Fringe this year. Because Adelaide is a tiny city, and because the Fringe takes over the place so completely, the artists all seem to end up getting to know each other fairly quickly, from the sort of bonding that comes only with laughter, mutual support and enthusiastic consumption of alcohol. Tommy Bradson was performing his show at the Garden of Unearthly Delights, and we’d seen him briefly onstage spruiking it, in full makeup and pirate regalia with a wooden leg. Over the next two weeks, we kept circling two shows in our programs that we’d not yet seen – a Dutch show called ‘Nothing is Really Difficult’, performed in a huge wooden box, and ‘Pirate Rhapsody, Mermaid Requiem.’ It got to the last night of our stay in Adelaide, and we separated into two factions: team Big Wooden Box and team We Really Want To Sleep With Tommy the Pirate So We’re Seeing His Show. I’d somehow managed to always be somewhere else while my peers were stalking Tommy and giggling hysterically, so I saw the box show and we trundled back to Melbourne. Via Facebook, however, I noted that he made an intriguing model, and had worked with quite a few photographers in the past. Always keen for new blood, I sent him a message suggesting that we do a shoot if he was ever in town; he replied that he’d be down in July, and that was that.

Gateau

Le Gateau Chocolat had also been performing in the Garden, and I’d been marvelling at his promotional image (above), so when I found out that Blair, the cellist from ‘Pirate Rhapsody’ (who I’d also photographed before – small world!) was playing for him in Melbourne and could get me a free ticket, I was in.

And so. ‘Pirate Rhapsody, Mermaid Requiem.’ The piece was based loosely on Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Little Mermaid’, a tale that reads rather more grimly that the Disney cartoon: mermaid falls in love with boy, mermaid rescues boy from storm and waits until some other bitch takes him back to civilisation, mermaid sells her soul in exchange for legs and feet, boy loves other bitch, mermaid suicides. Basically. On stage, this was rendered in the form of a strange, dark cabaret, performed by an Irish-brogued man tormented by having to choose between the love of two women, and a sassy, redhead American chanteuse with a fish-girl gimmick and a heart full of salt. Each swayed, slurred, sang, laughed and wept their way through twenty respective minutes of densely detailed text that mixed the sublimely poetic (‘I will clean from my fingernails all of the joy I have scraped from this world, and with that, endeavour to anchor at your side’) with the bare-facedly crass (‘There are two things that you give to a girl without question when she asks for it. The first one is chocolate, and the other one is cock. And I don’t have much of a sweet tooth.’)

The layers of pretence and performance here were complex. The pirate and the mermaid existed as stage characters for the man and the woman – the accoutrements of each (a peg leg and a glittering tail) were quickly discarded, but the metaphors of their seafaring lives were sustained. The audience was left with a tale of ocean and bar whose songs felt distinctively 18th century, but whose dialogue swelled to accommodate references to Mel Gibson and ketamine. The effect was of the Little Mermaid story as both analogy and fact, though at the end only the bones of the story – heartbreak, choice, loss – demanded authenticity, and received it. There was also a third layer here – that of the man in face paint performing the heartbreak of his characters. In fact, the masks could keep falling further – Tommy Bradson is itself a stage name. This was an hour in performativity theory – the inability to definitively locate the authentic in a world built on performance of self.

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Le Gateau Chocolat, too, could easily be prescribed for a class in semiotics. The audience sit enthralled as a tall, heavy, gay, Nigerian man swanned onto the stage with the grace of a dancer, threw off his robe to reveal a one-piece lycra leotard and some of the best makeup artistry I’ve seen outside a M.A.C. commercial, donned a wig, grasped a microphone and began to sing. But this was no standard drag performance. Despite wearing many of the signals of femininity – makeup, heels, glitter – Le Gateau sang with an opera-trained baritone rumble, and made no attempt to don the cheap, grating lisp of impersonated female speech. He directly referenced the liminal nature of his stage persona on several occasions. The show began with a short speech to the audience: ‘I know what you’re thinking… Why the lycra? And where is his penis? Well, over the next hour or so, some of these questions might begin to be answered. Or, and I hope this is the case, you might realise that they don’t matter.’ Later on, he reflected on his influences, and the moment that he realised that ‘just because I’m in drag doesn’t mean I’m trying to impersonate a woman. And just because I’m in drag doesn’t mean I have to be a drag.’ This was the crux of the Le Gateau experience – drawing on resources available to both genders, crossing boundaries of expectation, pushing envelopes in all directions to create a performance that stopped being gendered, and started simply being fabulous. The Le Gateau physicality was both strongly erotic and sexually enigmatic. This was the direct and considered rejection of semiotic expectations. When we see a tall, heavy, gay black man on stage, we make immediate assumptions about that figure, based on every contextual event of our lives. This isn’t necessarily bigotry; it’s how our brains construct meaning. But when we’re presented with a series of directly conflicting sign signals, and our brains can’t immediately categorise what we see, this is when we can begin to make genuine, original discoveries. Homi Bhabha calls it the ‘Third Space’ of meaning making, the place that we come to with fresh eyes.

This cheeky manipulation of semiotic expectations and contextual cues characterised both performances, and made otherwise outrageous, overt and ostentatious moments strangely mesmerising. I was transfixed by the curiousity of watching Bradson’s mermaid strut behind the microphone, or bend suggestively while an audience member sprayed her with water (‘You gotta keep me wet, honey’), because the scenes took the familiar and made it new. In the same way, seeing Le Gateau Chocolat sing ‘Nothing Compares To You’ in a voice octaves lower than the original, while wearing a frothy tulle neck-piece, batting his extended eyelashes, identified and exploited my expectations of both femininity and drag.

There was something else happening here, though. In general, there are few things I despise more than people emoting too hard on stage. Mamet discusses the audience watching an actress bring herself to tears on stage, who leave feeling somehow robbed of something, who leave ‘moved only by their capacity to be moved.’ Confession on stage, too, often seems to be forced, and watching it, one can’t help but feel like a dispensable aid to the catharsis of the performer. But in ‘Pirate Rhapsody’, both characters sobbed, wailed and proclaimed their pain to the audience in clichés and hyperbolic rants, and somehow it worked.

I think it’s because heightened performance, and cabaret in particular, creates a world with greater emotional range than our own. There’s something eternally anachronistic about the cabaret experience. One can’t help but link it to bohemian Paris, turn of the century Vienna; foreign places with artists who drank too much absinthe, and fell in love with can-can dancers, and cried in their garrets, and never ate, and burned cigarette holes in their bedsheets because they were churning out poetry too fast to notice the growing fingers of ash. These fictional worlds that contemporary cabaret singers can still evoke are worlds in which people are allowed to feel more than we are. They evoke a (mystical) time that tolerated destruction, hysteria and passionate romance. The drunken poet is allowed to feel that the stars are being wrenched from the sky because his love is lost. The world of fluorescent-caged businessman, conversely, allocates no space for more than a few tears over the empty bedsheets of his rented apartment. The poet can access the very vertices and nadirs of human feeling. The businessman is permitted to feel, at best, a series of gently rolling hills of emotion. And yet, secretly, I think, we all want to be able to feel that much. In some strange way, when we see the sobbing mermaid struggling to speak as the piano and cello swell behind her, we do not feel revulsion. We feel jealousy. We envy the wretched for their ability to be broken. Because at the end of the day, we’ve been told our whole lives that ‘Love is all you need’, but instead of fireworks and explosions, we get nights in eating overpriced takeaway in front of Masterchef. When we break up with people, we can’t stagger down to the carnival and find a spark of heaven in the arms of a circus whore. When we drink, we don’t see the Green Fairy dancing before us holding a paintbrush. We see the neon lights of a kebab stand and the taxi ride home. In an intermission-style short film separating the two halves of ‘Pirate Requiem’, the mermaid and the pirate talk at the looking glass backstage. ‘It’ll be fine’, says the pirate, of the mermaid’s upcoming performance. ‘I want more than fine’, she counters. ‘Say it’ll be grand.’’ And that’s the thing. The world of the cabaret is a world that is grander than ours, and despite ourselves, we crave it. By presenting us with heightened tales of loss and fear, cabaret artists give us our own desires, magnified. They feed our own needs with theirs, and in doing so, enter into an exchange of amplification with the audience, and we can’t help but love them for it. When the mermaid’s voice cracks as she confesses to her audience ‘I am destroyed and not yet desired’, we cast ourselves as the desperate, loveless chanteuse, shattered, but still singing. At one point, Le Gateau Chocolat reminisces about being fourteen, and falling in love for the first time, and sighs, ‘I couldn’t breathe when he walked into the room. I’d never felt anything that big before. And I really hope that, at some point in my life, I get to feel it again. And I hope that, if you haven’t already, that you get to feel it too.’ And we cast out a silent prayer in agreement, that one day, we’ll get to be so floored by love that we can’t exhale. The terror of mediocrity that we all carry inside us sneaks out of the cracks in our eyes under the glitter and the spotlights. We long for glory. Cabaret teaches us how far we could come from our mundane, repetitive, ordered lives.

Thus, the Cabaret Festival taught me about theatre. It taught me that humans crave the spectacular. It taught me that art doesn’t have to be honest – or, rather, that honesty can be much more affecting when couched in excess. It taught me the value of the mask and the makeup, which hide our face, but reveal our nature. It taught me that ‘Moulin Rouge’ has a lot to answer for. It taught me that if you push clichés hard enough, they become true again. And it taught me that maybe, just maybe, everyone needs a little lycra in their lives.

Photo of Le Gateau Chocolat by Magnus Hastings, shots of Tommy Bradson by me.

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