June 17, 2013

Cabaret Central

Filed under: 2013,Archive,Cabaret,Music

Adelaide Cabaret Festival 2013

Cabaret Central

Que Reste-T’Il
Robyn Archer
with Michael Morley and George Butrumlis
Adelaide Festival Theatre Stage.
June 15.

Just when we were wondering what cabaret is any more, along comes Robyn Archer to give us a splendid master class. Archer has long been recognised internationally as one of the foremost interpreters of the music of the German Weimar period – most especially the works of Bertolt Brecht and his musical henchmen , Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler and Paul Dessau. But with her current show Que Reste-T’Il we are taken to the very origins of cabaret.

They began in Paris in the 1880s – nightclubs where patrons sat at tables, drank, and watched variety acts calculated to unsettle sensibilities, excite enthusiasms and generally frighten the horses. At the epicentre of this activity was Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat), opened in Montmartre in 1881 by the impresario Rodolphe Salis and frequented by the leading musicians, poets, painters, exhibitionists and culture jammers of the day.

Robyn Archer opens the set with a prose manifesto – a panegyric to “The Street”, where there is life, energy, crime and colour. This is the cabaret of grit and struggle; not Romantic Paris, as Archer observes, but a place of contrasting realities. And so, after opening with Aristide Bruant’s signature song, Le Chat Noir, things switch to less agreeable matters. After a parodically sung liturgical intro from pianist and collaborator Michael Morley, Archer bursts full-throated into There’s the Cholera, a grim reminder of the dangers of urban epidemic in Europe of that time. Red City highlights the proletarian point of view and another acerbic song from Bruant, It Takes Cash, wryly says it all.

Archer and Morley have discovered and spicily translated a variety of pungent, roistering songs from the French archive. The Song of the Rag and Bone Man has Archer in great, droll, gusto as with Coin ! Coin !Coin ! – that’s Quack, Quack Quack to you – and as the singer lists the faults of journalists, stockbrokers and politicians, she soon had the whole audience joining in with the mocking refrain.

As Archer moves from the fin de siecle to the 20th century she adds the Dadaists and Surrealists to her list of prose readings – Andre Breton and Picabia feature, as do their lively diatribes against solemnity, self-importance and conformity. Ah, how beastly are the bourgeois ?

The mood shifts, though, with Plaisir d’Amour – Archer shrewdly exchanging the vinegar for wine. Cole Porter’s (You know Paris) But You Don’t Know Paree fits nicely, and reminding us that Paris in the 1930s was not just about Piaf , Archer sings Pluie, a song by the Parisian cabaret chanteuse Marie-Louise Damien, better known as Damia. Once asked what was the secret of her marvellous voice, Damia is said to have replied –“Three packs of Gitanes a day.”

But it wouldn’t be a French cabaret show without Edith Piaf, and Archer opens with L’Accordioniste, the perfect cue for an excellent solo from accordionist George Butrumlis. Where others perhaps interpret the fragility of Piaf, Robyn Archer reminds us that Edith was a tough little sparrow who made good use of middle registers and gutturals to add some punch.

Satirist Leo Ferre is well-represented with two songs, in lively translation by Michael Morley – Le Piano du Pauvre, complete with topical references to Lang Lang, and, in another swipe at the mealy-mouthed bourgeois, Monsieur William.
Jacques Brel is celebrated both in the form of a poem by Patrick McGuinness and Robyn Archer’s compelling, dizzily accelerating version of Carousel. It is one of many vocal highpoints – and reminders of her extraordinary expressiveness and range.

The set is a hugely entertaining mix of satire, melody, and fun – a medley of French kitsch, starting with Windmills of Your Mind and on to The Singing Nun’s Dominique, is followed by Serge Gainsbourg’s Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde, sung by Michael Morley who is having such a good time there should be a law against it. Archer’s curtain song is also a winner – Charles Trenet’s Que Reste T’Il- What Remains (of our Love) ?

We may not be able to answer that question, but what remains of this terrific show are the encores. First, a parody to the tune of Je Ne Regrette Rien, consisting of every familiar French word or phrase – from RSVP to Maitre d’ to ménage a trois (you get the idea) – all sung in mournful deadpan to mischievous effect. There’s no way to top that, but Robyn Archer manages it, with the entire audience roaring through more verses of Alouette than you would have thought possible. Je te plumerai la tete ? Que Reste T’Il ? Any more of that, and all that remained would be feathers.

Murray Bramwell

Published online at The Barefoot Review, June 20, 2013.

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