‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is the title of a play by a near-contemporary of Shakespeare, John Ford, and An Operatic Fantasia on Selling the Skin and the Teeth is the subtitle of the new collaboration between Meow Meow, director Cameron Menzies and composer and librettist Richard Mills.
Mills’s program note points out that performing and whoring both involve arts of self-presentation, and probably doesn’t need to point out that it is only very recently in history that the minds of the respectable have fully distinguished acting from prostitution.
Mills also remarks that this show was written at “breakneck speed” last November, and it has to be said it shows. There is a rather thrown together, unfinished quality to these ten vignettes of whoring down the ages, performed with great gusto by Meow Meow and tenor Kanen Breen, with the assistance of three louche dancers (Alexander Bryce, Thomas Johansson and Patrick Weir).
It’s halfway between opera and the kind of postmodern, cerebrally supercharged burlesque we associate with Moira Finucaine, with the stage at the Recital Centre taken over by a couple of beds, a mobile staircase, and a red plush backdrop; also with be-fishnetted mannequin legs poking out all over.
Things begin well, with Solon the lawgiver in Ancient Greece establishing the separation of woman into Wife and Harlot; ancient Rome producing the challenge of finding a rhyme for one of the dottier emperors, Elagabalus, who turned his palace into a whorehouse with himself as the main attraction; the dark and middle ages supply some hair-raising quotations from church fathers about prostitution being a sewer that provides an outlet for the baser impulses, along with more generalised misogyny (the idea that menstrual blood is so toxic it can kill crops, for instance), and also the highlight, the showstopper indeed, in the Syphilis Song (“the Italians called it the Spanish disease, the Russians called it the Polish disease, the Turks called it the Christian disease”).
The Renaissance goes by in a whirl, the 18th century is represented by a couple of lines from the poet Rochester — who wrote in the 17th — and the 19th century, so rich in Violettas and Olympias and Nanas, is rather puzzlingly leapfrogged altogether, so the show can arrive the sooner in Berlin, represented by drums and stomping feet and a back projection of the whole variety of names working girls have gone under down the ages.
Mills’s score is hectic and a bit of a wallop: it tends towards film-music dramatics and showbiz razzle-dazzle — there’s a Charleston in there, and acrid Kurt Weill cabaret tones — with some swooning late Romantic strings, sex’n’death’s favourite soundtrack, making an appearence for Meow Meow’s more introspective, melancholic moments. The prominent use of the ondes martinot sharpens the music’s sardonic edge. Mills also conducts and the Victorian Opera orchestra gets into the spirit of things with pointed, lively playing.
Meow Meow starts out channelling Liza Minnelli, especially in her first appearance as the goddess of love, which is as it should be, what with Minnelli’s most famous Cabaret role being the aspring actress who lived on the borderlines of prostitution, Sally Bowles. She is well supported by Kanen Breen, who matched her for decadence (I was reminded at times of Alan Cumming’s turn as the evil Roman Emperor Saturninus in the Julie Taymor movie of Titus Andronicus) and in voice.
There is nothing much to complain about in the execution, there is there is no lack of stimulation and wit in the performances — but I was left with the sense of a promising idea that needed a bit more time and a bit more work. ‘Tis pity.