From the moment we arrived at Chapel off Chapel, we knew we’d made the right choice. The foyer was filled, leopard skin print and blond hair, men in suits that were sharp in the ’90s, kids from the numberless drama and dance schools that sprout in the vast ‘burbs, and, for this show, the high-camp crowd of all genders and persuasions, men in matching eyewear and middle-aged professional women who tapdance in knee-high rainbow socks in church halls on weekends.
The cabaret crowd has been coming here for twenty years or so; wistful professionals and last season’s tap school dropouts. The extra push is on tonight because the show playing is Britney Spears: The Cabaret, as performed by Christie Whelan-Browne, and directed and written by local cabareteur Dean Bryant. That it’s going to be Britney Spears done lo-fi is already an hour well-spent, and anything beyond that is a bonus. Lest it be thought that this is some sort of creepy anthropological participant-observation on my part, let me set it straight: it is nothing of the sort. It is a creepy attachment to teen pop done raw, and an expectation that some of this might be performed in underwear. How could that possibly go wrong?
Well, pretty nearly with surprising ease, as it turned out, but more of that later. What struck me first and most forcefully about the evening was the degree to which the show jumped out at me, when I was trying to select something to see, in Melbourne on a Thursday night. And the strange relationship we have to theatre, and theatre now has, in our culture, to pleasure, or the expectation of it. Because it seems to be the case that of all the major arts, theatre is the one that many educated, culture-seeking people are not only willing but almost proud to say they know nothing of, and have no desire to pursue. Indeed, it is often said with a near-perverse pride. Anyone who says they don’t read books is automatically out of the circle of culture. Music, film, TV, and comedy are simply in the air, and as essential to us. Theatre and related arts alone can be rejected, as a sign of one’s cultural depth.
But even more contradictory is the relationship many people who do like theatre have with the form — as something whose anticipation can feel like anything other than pleasant expectation. There are nights at the theatre where the entire audience, if they were honest with each other, would admit that they were there with a mixed sense of duty, the possibility of edification, even the knowledge one might be taken up and transformed — a whole series of emotions, none of which can be called pleasure. Not every night by any means, but enough of them to make theatre-going a strange and distinct experience. The sense of heaviness, the slight tug in the stomach, the glance at the cinema listings, the guilty feeling that knocking off a couple of episodes of The Americans is what you really want to do that night.
Genuinely avant-garde and experimental theatre, something where space, motion and presence are pulled apart at a fundamental level, is a thing apart, and was never going to be anything but difficult — but the question remains about what the hell one is actually doing going to theatre. It’s a question that even a lot of theatre people ask themselves — though few will admit it. In Australia, it has a very specific root — theatre was a crucial part of the progressive/radical nationalism that reshaped the nation’s culture from the 1960s onwards, and is now a completed or curtailed project.
But there is the same problem elsewhere, at least in the English-speaking world. There are times, in London, where you can look through the theatre listings and see nothing, not one show, that is recognisably what people have been going to for five hundred years — a new, and encompassing, and complexly-made play that calls out your expectations. There are plays that will challenge you, undermine your assumptions about X, boldly explore X, Y, Z — and on the other hand there are plays that will enwrap you, offer you the same pleasure that a good movie will suggest.
But these latter are now, overwhelmingly, revivals, and not merely of the classics. Minor Noel Coward and Shaw, somewhat dated exercises by Simon Gray, and knowing, slightly camped revivals of old boulevard works such as Arthur Pinero fill the gap where a living realist/comic/farce tradition should be. It’s a supreme paradox, and one that theatrical culture — sustained by subsidies as part of state-authorised cultural capital — hasn’t had to come to grips with.
It is worse in smaller cities, even quite large American ones, or somewhere like Melbourne, where on a given night, or during whole periods of weeks and months, there is nothing, or almost nothing that one really wants to see. Not nothing one could see, but nothing that leaps out, that spurs the hunger. Thursday night in Melbourne there were two revival musicals to consider, plus Glengarry Glen Ross or next week Brendan Cowell’s The Sublime, a prose-monologue play about football.
The strong and most basic feeling was that I would happily see a Glengarry Glen Ross-style work about football, but a verse/monologue piece was one step beyond, and that nothing but nothing would persuade me to see an Australian version of Glengarry Glen Ross. This was not a question of the reviews, which had been middling, but a wider question of what the hell anyone thinks they are doing with it. This is an American play that, as a script, is far from a classic — and certainly not on the Williams/Miller level — but which was turned into one in film by the finest male cast in the last several decades. I’d happily take a punt on a new US version of it, an all-black version of it, or one set in a regional Chinese city, and translated back through surtitles. But the one thing I can’t imagine is that the rendition has any real chance of being sufficiently original and good to magic away the memory of Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey — and the dozen or so lines that Alan Arkin gets, and which are possibly the most powerful of the whole film. Given the film, it is difficult not to feel that the play is — as far as a white, male, version goes — essentially completed, and that any performance of it is — what? Not a minstrel show, not quite, but a redundancy, a painting of a photograph, with all the attendant problems.
One whole genre of theatre — the musical — has been, as an art form, destroyed by this process, the movie becoming the template for the stage show. This is done for non-English speaking tourist audiences in London and New York, who have seen the movie and thus know the plot, and can follow the story. It bases a living performance on a fixed one, committed to screen, and is, really, nothing other than necrophilia. And that is, sadly, what a performance of Glengarry Glen Ross seems to be, in a provincial Anglosphere city, where anyone can call up an incomparably more powerful and culturally centred version of it on Google Play. The justification for this once was, rightly enough, that it was the only way people would ever get to see the play in question. What’s the justification now?
But that’s not the feel of course, with Britney Spears: The Cabaret. Of all the shows in Melbourne, this was the one. For the theatre punter, it was surefire. Done for laughs, or deadly serious, it could not fail. If it was comic and failed, it would simply magnify the greatness of the songs. If it was deeply serious it would be the unknowing camp classic du moment. What it was going to be with something that — for anyone under about 50 — connected with your life, because let’s face it, Britney matters.
One-time Mickey Mouseketeer, teen star, and performer of a half-dozen essential songs/videos, and then the pioneer of the first post-Jacko distinctive star crack-up, Britney Jean Spears was corn-fed trailer trash who fulfilled the American dream and the universal fantasy of both men and women. John Berger put modern culture succinctly: men look at women, and women look at the women that men look at, and Britney was the most total fantasy figure since Raquel Welch: pretty and curvy, petite and Amazonian, she could sing and dance well enough, and became the pure focus of American, and global/American culture in the period immediately before 9/11. The last ironic West, the era of Friends, Seinfeld, Christine and Britney.
Britney was some sort of endpoint. Defenders of her peekaboo schoolgirl clip for Baby One More Time pointed out that it was an MTV clip aimed for MTV kid audiences — a claim repeated in this show — but, really. It was straight out of Marguerite Duras, a teen performance in an Asian brothel, and an inauguration of the era in which, a la Law and Order: SVU, unauthorised desire would be simultaneously the representation of radical evil, and also the guiding spirit for Target ads, Vogue shoots and the high art of Bill Henson types.
Then it was the tortured stuff, the years of crazy, and so on. There’s a killer line in this show: “Every newspaper in the world has already written my obituary. It’s like I’m already dead.”‘ And of course she is. For a while she occupied a total cultural space, the idol of young women, the sacred memory of older ones, and the near-plumpish singing sex doll of western manhood, and then of course it all went pear-shaped. She evoked the new world of superstar women, and a 60s/70s thing of ample women, a genuine continental flourish. After the joyless Protestant sexlessness of Madonna, it was a welcome relief. Spears’ act, a product of a coincidence of corporate and artistic forces, was predicated on the idea that everything important in your life pretty much happens in high school, a theme which runs through works as diverse as her oeuvre, the ‘Rabbit’ novels of Updike, the films of John Hughes, and Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, and which is a decisive preference, within the culture, for innocence over experience, for the inherent belief that experience is merely life with the innocence removed, a husk.
There are no second acts in American life, but there are many very long epilogues, which look like them, and that is the fallacy that Britney Spears: The Cabaret falls into. The first 20 minutes are pure screwball comedy, in which Whelan-Browne perfectly parodies the over earnestness of the popular culture that Spears stepped into — a video/music/dance style which simply took the “pitiless” style of impossible perfection that Bob Fosse pioneered on Broadway in the ’60s and into the ’70s. With simple piano accompaniment, Whelan-Browne, who has the basic body and face to be a Spears double, should the latter ever become dictator of a Middle Eastern nation, makes her way though half a dozen of the more recognisable songs — Circus, Piece of Me, Stronger — as a retelling of the teen Mouseketeer’s journey to megastardom, managing to get a good bunch of gags out of not only the between-song patter, but also the styling of the songs themselves. Musical humour isn’t easy, but she hits it, especially in her attempt to replicate Spears ba-dum-dum so-called “orchestra hit” style in a purely vocal fashion.
Thus were we settled in nicely for an hour or so tour through the cultural trailer park of Britney’s life, the head shaving, lip-synching, paparazzi picking up, dancer marrying riot of it, when we hit Oops I did it again half way through, and Justin Timberlake, and it all went deadly, deadly serious in a way that tested the patience of the most Broadwayest of Babies (Christ, I’m writing like Mr G. This stuff really gets under your nails). I had wondered how the show was going to sustain 90 minutes of high-camp humour, and the answer was, it didn’t even try. The abrupt shift by which Britney became a small-voiced simple girl, and young mum, sliced and diced by celebrity — “I just cut my hair ‘cos I was tired of getting milk in it” etc — lacked any sort of torsion, any place that it came from in the show, and it led us into a pretty tiresome little girl lost routine, passing through half a dozen more numbers which, stripped of either high production or parodic reinterpretation, are pretty sameish.
There was a lot of opportunity missed to do stuff with props, motifs, dance, costume, etc, and the finale was an overblown, misjudged rendition of Baby One More Time. It was still funny, but wrongtown funny by that point. I won’t irritate the reader with what St Oscar said about the death of Little Nell, but there’s a better comparison, floating around on YouTube — an audio clip of a teenage Judy Garland trying, and failing, to get through a recording of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and breaking down repeatedly in tears, line by line. It is just about the funniest thing you’ve ever heard.
But going back to the point about pleasure: what’s worth noting is that for pretty much all of it I was barracking for the show, knowing that there was at least the pleasure of the songs, wanting it to succeed in summoning up the Britney-era, a soundtrack to the final period of untrammelled American supremacy, a demented performance of narcissistic fetishisation, licensed lust for teens and fascination with child stars gone bad. Soon, the Mouseketeers will start coming forward with the abuse stories and that will be over for all and good, even in the memory of high camp retro-culture, the ultimate innocence.
What I suspect I would have felt at Glengarry Glen Ross, or anything like it, was the exact opposite of that generosity — any falling short would have produced a sort of white fury between the eyes, at this gap between what’s out there, and what’s here. Conversely, if someone were to have a crack at another Aussie Rules play — something in a room, observing the unities, about the intersection of power, desire and pleasure, and doing its best not to sound like a Beyondblue advert on troubled masculinity — I would give that a go too, and lean in a bit. But a verse monologue about a player changing codes? Oops, they did it again.
What’s more, I’m pretty sure there’s a bigger audience for more of that out there. Such boulevard theatre has never died away as a mass — well, bourgeois mass — entertainment in Germany, or Paris, where every four blocks or so there’s a small theatre showing some new comedy about, as Juliette Binoche said of the entire French film industry output, “three people who have an affair and then they go to a restaurant”.
Did it die in the Anglosphere because the audience depleted, or did the audience wither away because of an insistence from within theatrical culture that every realist play be in some way thematic and exploring issues — rather than situations? I got a whiff of it from Britney — as did Timberlake, the show assures us — but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t after something stronger, and out from under, that only full theatre can provide.