Cabaret star Meow Meow. Pic: supplied

Festivals, Live, Reviews

Perth Festival Postcard 4: Meow Meow and Rufus Wainwright

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The word ‘cabaret’ originally referred to the ‘little room’ – typically a tavern, pub, café, restaurant or nightclub – in which the genre blossomed in 19th century Paris. Cabaret performances usually took place on a small stage for an audience seated at tables while eating and drinking, and included song, dance, theatre, recitations and other ‘acts’ with decidedly underground erotic and/or political-satirical tendencies.

In a nod to the genre’s Parisian origins, Perth Festival Director Iain Grandage renamed Perth Concert Hall and its precincts the ‘City of Lights’ for the duration of the Festival. The venue was transformed into a kind of antipodean Brutalist mini-Montmartre, with a variety of Asian hawker-style street food and drinks available inside and outside.

An even greater variety of music and music-based events (ticketed and free) took place on the Concert Hall main stage, in the ground floor bar, and on two temporary outdoor stages collectively called the Chevron Lighthouse. The latter was cleverly situated on the monumental stairway-entrance to the venue that overlooks the Swan River, and the layout took full advantage of the spectacular architecture and location.

Grandage commissioned international ‘kamikaze cabaret’ artiste and longstanding collaborator Meow Meow (the self-creation of Australian singer-dancer-actor and performance artist Melissa Madden Gray) to curate a season entitled Kabarett Haus on the Concert Hall main stage. The title invokes the tradition of Kabarett that flourished in Berlin during the Weimar Republic and invested the genre with a somewhat darker sense of humour and cutting political edge (as celebrated by Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin and later immortalised on Broadway and onscreen by the musical Cabaret).

Meow Meow described the intended atmosphere of the season in the Festival program notes as one of ‘epic intimacy’, and this deliberate oxymoron applied both to the scale and mood of the venue and the performances. The 1,700-odd capacity auditorium was festooned with naked light bulbs hanging from the ceiling above the stage and the audience, and the front rows of seating were removed to make room for cabaret-style tables and chairs (patrons could also bring drinks into the venue).

As for the performances: these consisted of three nights with three different solo artists – Meow Meow herself, American-Canadian singer-songwriter and cover-artist Rufus Wainwight, and American post-punk performer and writer Amanda Palmer – each presenting material that was distinctively personal in style and content.

Nonetheless the concerts were undeniably large-scale in terms of the venue and audience – not to mention musical forces in the case of Meow Meow (whose show Pandemonium involved the WA Symphony Orchestra conducted by Grandage, along with Meow Meow’s regular accompanist Thomas M Lauderdale) and even duration (Palmer’s This Concert Has No Interval went for four hours).

Regretfully I didn’t make it to Palmer’s show on the final evening of the season  – nor to Meow Meow ‘in conversation’ with Grandage that afternoon, which apparently showcased them in typical spontaneous collaboration-mode with Grandage on the piano. However I did see Pandemonium on the Thursday night, followed by Wainwright’s Down Solo Wainwright on the Friday.

Both concerts offered a rich and diverse feast musically and in terms of performance.

Both concerts offered a rich and diverse feast musically and in terms of performance. There was also a heightened sense of occasion on both nights – enhanced by the unfamiliar look and feel of the Concert Hall, as well as the unique sense of pride in the Festival and the venue which is shared by local audiences in this most isolated of cities.

This sense of occasion and pride was especially strong at Pandemonium on opening night, with Grandage appearing in top hat and frock coat decorated with Sergeant Pepper-style epaulettes to direct the orchestra in which he was once a member of the cello section. Madden Gray, meanwhile, was making something of a triumphant return to Perth in her ‘post-postmodern diva’ guise, having once upon a time trained in music theatre at WAAPA.

Gray is a super-talented and highly sophisticated performer. Her alter-ego Meow Meow is a dazzling and complex creation that sometimes appears to be as autonomous or even out-of-control as Michael Redgrave’s ambiguously mad or possessed ventriloquist doll in Dead of Night.

I first saw her in action (with Grandage at the piano) in the Famous Spiegeltent at the Melbourne Festival in 2005. The next time was in her first full-scale theatre show Vamp, directed by Michael Kantor at The Malthouse in 2008 (with Grandage as co-composer and musical director as well as on keyboards).

In her earlier manifestations Meow Meow was a provocative and even polarising sex-starved femme fatale, ravaged by alcohol and driven by the need for affirmation, who passively or aggressively manipulated the audience (especially the men) and rarely finished or even got beyond the first few bars of a song.

At times it was hard to distinguish persona from performer, satire from self-indulgence, or a coherent cabaret act from a form of performance art that threatened to replicate the very stereotypes of female oppression it claimed to dissect; but perhaps that was the whole point. Nonetheless, in ongoing collaboration with Grandage, and with Kantor’s input as director (as well as Maryanne Lynch as resident Malthouse dramaturg), her shows became more substantial, and her tragicomic material and repertoire began to evolve.

A decade down the track, things have shifted gear in spectacular fashion. Her shtick has become less desperate, less sexualised, less aggressive, less dependent on alcohol or approval, more self-reliant and self-knowing; audience members are collaborators rather than targets of seduction or abuse; songs are sung all the way through and more fully inhabited; and her considerable vocal range and acting talents are on generous display. She’s no longer the downwardly spiralling ingénue, but the established (if slightly washed up) grande dame. Overall there’s a more delicate balance between chanteuse and clown, to the benefit of both.

All in all this was by far the most satisfying Meow Meow show I’ve seen

All in all this was by far the most satisfying Meow Meow show I’ve seen – even if some of her more intentionally problematic layers have been shed, possibly in deference to a more mainstream (or at least less underground) performance context (the show debuted last year at the Sydney Opera House and played more recently at the Royal Festival Hall in London with the London Philharmonic Orchestra). Or maybe we’ve just all gotten older and wiser. Probably all of the above.

The repertoire ranged from up-tempo Latin numbers like Piazzolla’s pounding tango Rinasceró and Maria Luz Casal’s flamenco-style Un año de amor,to more sombre French chansons like Jacques Brel’s Ne me quitte pas or (darker still) German songs like Kurt Weil’s bitter Surabaya Johnny from Happy End.

Other highlights included the less known Russian Jewish composer Spoliansky’s strident Berlin cabaret gem Ich bin ein Vamp (also recently revived by another great exponent of the repertoire, Ute Lemper) and two surreal and apocalyptic pieces written by Meow Meow herself in collaboration with Grandage (with the latter briefly replacing Lauderdale on the piano), In This City and Tear Down the Stars.

There was also a surprise guest appearance by Rufus Wainwright, who revealed that it was Meow Meow’s birthday and invited us and the orchestra to join him in singing Happy Birthday, before lending his voice to a playful duet with hers on Michel Emer’s insouciant À quoi ça sert l’amour (originally made famous by Edith Piaf and Théo Sarapo).

The two most poignant songs however were both contemporary covers. The first was Radiohead’s sublime Fake Plastic Trees, which I first heard her sing as the closing number of Vamp, but was here swooningly re-orchestrated by Grandage – and which Meow Meow has now made comprehensively her own, as a hauntingly ironic self-reflection on the nature of desire. The second was Patty Griffin’s aching country-folk ode to emotional vulnerability Be Careful, which she sang as a closing number while self-lit only by a handheld torch, before exiting through the auditorium to the foyer (“to sell CDs”).

Other antics including storming off in a simulated huff after the opening number, before returning to hand out roses for the audience to throw at her (“Not in my face!”) while she repeated the song; selecting hapless male audience members to come onstage and ‘support’ her; crowd-surfing to the distant rear stalls of the Concert Hall and back again; and being progressively stripped of ‘borrowed’ costume items in the course of the evening by an apologetic wardrobe mistress (“Budget cuts!”).

There’s always been an element of orchestrated chaos in Meow Meow’s performances

There’s always been an element of orchestrated chaos in Meow Meow’s performances – though this was somewhat held in check in Pandemonium by the presence of an actual orchestra. Nonetheless even the latter broke into some choreographed chaos of their own during the ‘avant garde’ iteration of Itsy Bitsie Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini (which was given several other equally appalling variations in multiple languages, musical and verbal as well as physical).

The most striking image of the night, however, was when she wheeled on a mannequin replica of herself from the wings (complete with dress and wig, but humiliatingly “taller and thinner”), which remained onstage like a haunting doppelgänger for Fake Plastic Trees and the last few songs.

In a sense Meow Meow herself is a kind of replica – one might almost say a replicant, in the language of Blade Runner. At times it’s all gloriously camp, like a female impersonation of a female impersonator in exponentially squared drag  – including the Joan Collins wig, false eyelashes and deep cut-glass voice. At other times the intent feels more serious. If all gender and sexuality is performed, and even involves a kind of masquerade, then the script is all-too-cruelly prescribed – and all too often it’s women who pay the price.

*

Rufus Wainwright’s solo show at the Concert Hall the following night was in many ways a more stripped back affair – musically and theatrically at least, as it featured him in true solo mode (apart from a couple of surprise guests) accompanying himself on piano and acoustic guitar. As a result, his personal and political feelings were laid all the more bare.

In fact the show had even more sting than Pandemonium when it came to gaily defying social scripts about sexuality, love, marriage, parenthood and masculinity. This defiance included charming references and dedications to his husband and their daughter, as well as more pointed remarks about his father (the folk singer Louden Wainwright III), not to mention the current President of the United States.

Rufus Wainwright. Pic: Josep Echaburu

Despite its apparent artlessness, the performance was also deceptively structured, with a musical and dramatic arc that took us from disarming diffidence to an increasingly heightened level of emotion and command (Wainwright has after all composed two operas, as well as orchestral settings of five Shakespeare sonnets, and many of his songs are effectively character-based monologues). He even twice stopped and corrected himself during the opening song – the shimmering ballad ‘The Art Teacher’ – before confessing that he was feeling “a little scared”.

However this was no feigned Meow Meow-style routine. Unlike Madden Gray, Wainwright is always himself onstage – even when channelling Judy Garland, and even if the nature of that self is (like all selves) multi-layered and contradictory beneath the apparently smooth and transparent surface. Like Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, two other great fellow Canadian singer-songwriters that he is inspired by or covers, many of his self-penned songs are semi-autobiographical. Even his covers are vehicles for self-reflection.

After the yearning torch song My Phone’s On Vibrate for You came the heartbreaking lament The Maker Makes from the soundtrack to Brokeback Mountain – introduced with a wryly self-deprecating anecdote about unwittingly swimming with Heath Ledger’s ashes in the Indian ocean offshore from Perth. This was appropriately followed by the macabre Tom Waites-style burlesque of Matinee Idol.

Things shifted gear when Wainwright strapped on the guitar and delivered raunchy acoustic versions of Out of the Game and the swaggering Jericho, before dedicating Peaceful Afternoon – a beautiful and complex tribute to 13 years of married life – to his husband, who was in the audience.

The mood changed again when he returned to the piano for the charming Jean Renoir chanson La complainte de la butte (immortalised in Moulin Rouge), followed by the remorseful hangover cabaret song Early Morning Madness, and the wise and witty Sondheim-esque showtune Poses.

At this point he was joined by Meow Meow’s accompanist Thomas M Lauderdale, and the concert went to another level, with a series of covers showcasing Wainwright’s vocal and emotional range as well as Lauderdale’s dazzling and sensitive skills as a backing pianist.

Wainwright is always himself onstage – even when channelling Judy Garland, and even if the nature of that self is (like all selves) multi-layered and contradictory

First came the Irving Berlin classic How Deep is the Ocean, which Wainwright declared to be his favourite song. Next came a moving tribute to Wainwright’s mother the folk singer Kate McGarrigle (who died in 2010) with the hymn-like Kitty Come Home, written by her sister Anna to encourage Kate to return to the family after breaking up with Wainwright’s father.

Another mood change followed with the Judy Garland swing number Zing Go The Strings of My Heart! from Wainwright’s tribute tour and live album Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall (in which he reincarnated Garland’s legendary – if sadly temporary – comeback from drug addiction in 1961). This was no impersonation, but a deeper and more complex form of identification, as became even more apparent with his sublime rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow (backlit by a simple but evocative rainbow from the footlights behind him).

In between these two numbers he was joined by Meow Meow for two duets: the bitter Brecht/Weil Tango Ballad from Threepenny Opera (with Wainwright singing in English and Meow Meow in German); and a playfully contrapuntal interweaving of Get Happy and Happy Days are Here Again (a medley made famous by Garland and Barbara Streisand in a hilarious and touching TV co-appearance on The Judy Garland Show which I recommend checking out on YouTube).

The rest of the show saw Wainwright in solo mode again, accompanying himself on more original songs and covers. The former included (on guitar) the poignant evocation of the 9/11 attacks 11:11 and the moving anthem Only the People That Love. Returning to the piano, he delivered the Philip Glass-y message to his daughter Montauk, the more ambivalent missive to his father Dinner at Eight, the rueful reflection on addiction Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk and the sadly still all-too relevant jeremiad against injustice, mendacity and hatred in George W. Bush’s America Going to a Town.

Finally there were two Leonard Cohen covers: a rollicking version of So Long Marianne on guitar (the song’s many ironies underscored by the fact that Cohen was the grandfather of Wainwright’s daughter); and a closing rendition of Hallelujah at the piano, in which Wainwright’s velvet tones temporarily eclipsed even the famously ethereal version by Jeff Buckley.

*

Both concerts demonstrated that cabaret in whatever form – French, German or Broadway inspired, epic or intimate – still speaks to us eloquently today, especially in the hands of two of its finest contemporary exponents. As Brecht wrote in the late 1930s:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes there will also be singing
About the dark times.

Meow Meow’s Pandemonium and Rufus Wainwright’s Down Solo Wainwright were at Perth Concert Hall on Thursday 20 and Friday 21 February.

One response to “Perth Festival Postcard 4: Meow Meow and Rufus Wainwright

  1. A testament to both artists is the audience – I’ve not seen such a diverse , and VERY devoted crowd since….. the last Wainwright concert in Perth.
    Great review of some very talented people.
    Skp

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