In 2015 the Melbourne Cabaret Festival, now in its sixth year, elected as their the chocolate-dipped strawberry as their new emblem; a humble yet iconic treat that, despite its modest size, incorporates a complex coupling of bombastic freshness and naughty, dark, decadence – the perfect analogy for everybody’s favourite mongrel art form.
With 30 new works on offer this year, I gorged myself on a modest selection of tasty morsels and have lovingly digested and regurgitated my favourite pickings for you here.
Jennifer Kingwell (The Jane Austen Argument) joined forces with The Silo String Quartet to deliver a sumptuous song cycle of decadence and indulgence in The Lotus Eaters at The Butterfly Club.
Kingwell’s epic journey traversed time and space, from Odysseus’s first encounter with a strange tribe of mindless gluttons on a mysterious island off the coast of the Peloponnese to undergraduate stoner house parties in suburban Adelaide.
Not bound by any solid central narrative, the show was instead cast adrift through a series of vignettes that employed classical and contemporary storytelling to explore tropes of love, loss, political activism, and the dichotomous struggle between the ease of languor and the desperate need for action.
The Silo String Quartet provided wonderfully inventive arrangements of contemporary pop classics, ranging from Tom Waits to PJ Harvey to Amanda Palmer, as well as a handful of originals that showcased both Kingwell’s unique vocal ability and considerable writing talent.
Annie Lee, well known as the eldest of the excessively maudlin of the Kransky Sisters, teamed up with musical talent of Salliana Campbell to pay homage to the astounding life and songs of cabaret heroine Agnes Bernelle in Lighthouse Berlin at Chapel Off Chapel.
In this beautifully fond and personal tribute to one of the last direct links to Weimar Germany, the birthplace of the cabaret, Lee recounts the details of Bernelle’s extraordinary life, from her Berlin upbringing, sharing her kitchen table with some of the era’s most notorious poets, to her time working as a British secret agent to undermine the Nazi war effort.
Lee is a truly enchanting and generous storyteller who, away from the highly stylised aesthetic of The Kransky Sisters, did away with much of the superficial pretence that permeates so much of the cabaret form and instead opted for a far more casual mode of delivery. This refreshingly honest and grounded style of storytelling evokes the sense that we may just as well be sharing these stories over a cup of tea in Lee’s own living room, and echoes the tradition of intimate aural sharing that provided the foundation for the cabarets of the Weimar era.
The woes of finding love in this contemporary technology-burdened age continued to be a prominent theme across the festival and Noni McCallum stood out, taking a cheeky swipe at dating apps in Tinderella (Chapel Off Chapel). Armed with a sly, cynical wit and one heck of a voice, McCallum injected a sometimes embarrassingly honest familiarity into the otherwise impersonal world of sterile screens that have become the primary avenue for romantic introductions for so many modern Lonely Hearts. The show was punctuated with a balanced blend of show tunes and classic pop hits, and Andrew Kroenert’s masterful musical and vocal accompaniment was very well utilised.
By far, my favourite little strawberry of the festival came wrapped in the bold, unflinching rawness of powerhouse couple Kanen Breen and Jacqui Dark in Strange Bedfellows: Under the Covers (Chapel Off Chapel).
With an indulgent darkness and salacious humour, the Bedfellows invited us into their debauched boudoir for an evening of sexual deviance and fetishised fascination. In a show that was definitely not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach, the duo took a carte blanche approach to offering us a taste of “every meat in the sexual casserole”, ranging from the mildest fetishes to the furthest extremes of social and ethical taboo. It was dark and at times profoundly confronting, but such challenging provocation leant a crucially visceral strength to the piece.
Amidst the darkness, the show was also gilded with the lighter notes as Dark and Breen explored their own unique pseudo-romantic relationship. Beneath the rampant ego-driven viciousness and barbed quips, a genuine tenderness was allowed to shine through as the pair shared personal stories of themselves at their most emotionally bruised and vulnerable.
Breen and Dark are two enchanting glitter-trash dominatrices with the ability to alternately make your stomach turn with discomfort or backflip with delight. This was a richly composed and beautifully balanced show, alternately disturbing, poignant and hilarious, and exactly what I want from cab
Despite several recent setbacks to the arts sector, cabaret continues to thrive, propelled by an alternative cultural and political drive that has always been at its heart since its very beginnings. With the Melbourne Cabaret Festival making a decided shift towards fostering more and more new and emerging talent, and with the resurgence of the art form gaining exponential momentum, I can’t wait to imbibe on what tasty offerings sprout up next year.