Friday, 17 June 2016

Adelaide Cabaret Festival review: 'Songs for the Fallen'

Dunstan Playhouse, 15–16 June 2016. Written by Sheridan Harbridge. Directed by Shane Anthony. Performed by Sheridan Harbridge, Ben Gerrard, Garth Holcombe, and Steven Kreamer.

Photo: Louis Dillon Savage

 ‘Well-behaved women,’ wrote American academic Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, ‘seldom make history’. Attributed variously to Marilyn Monroe, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Anne Boleyn, the aphorism makes it into the mouth (besides much else) of Marie Duplessis (Sheridan Harbridge), infamous 19th century courtesan, in this ‘strange little independent theatre show with pop music’. Also written by Harbridge, Songs for the Fallen shares much in common with Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette, which jettisoned the formula of the traditional historical biopic in favour of a brash, fast and loose style that employed a contemporary idiom and soundtrack of 1980s pop and post-punk.

Similarities between the subjects, though separated by more than half a century, abound: proto celebrities by the time they were twenty, both were profligate and promiscuous, running up enormous debts while indulging every whim for clothes, parties, and men (and women, it was rumoured, in Antoinette’s case). At her most spendthrift, Duplessis was lavishing 100,000 francs a year of her various paramours’ generous incomes on the kind of lifestyle that would become de rigueur for her 20th century equivalents—actors and rock stars and, latterly, reality TV idols. She was just 23 when she died, her waiflike body wracked with tuberculosis in what, it doesn’t take much imagination to note, looks in hindsight like a prefiguring of the fabled 27 Club of our own times.  

Duplessis’s life and death are the stuff of myth, to be sure, kindled by their seemingly limitless fascination for artists of all stripes. The Pygmalion-like story of an abused street girl propelling herself up the social ladder by means of beauty, charm, and wit, shedding her common accent and adding the faux noble ‘Du’ to her name along the way, drew chroniclers like moths to a flame. The first was Alexandre Dumas fils, penniless, illegitimate son of a famous writer and one of Duplessis’ last lovers, who rendered her—just five months after her death—as La Dame aux Camellias (Verdi saw the play, and based La Traviata on it). In one of Songs for the Fallen’s more amusing moments, Duplessis asks Dumas if he will write about her after she has gone; unable to meet her gaze, and anxiously toeing the floor of her apartment, he produces a long ‘um’, followed by a barely audible ‘no’.

Such is the tone of much of Songs for the Fallen—irreverent, knowing, flip. When, at the beginning of the show, Duplessis’ loyal maid asks if she needs anything, the courtesan replies, ‘champagne and a microphone. We’re going to have a fucking party!’ It’s her birthday, and also the day of the Paris Carnival—the Carnival falls on her birthday, she coos, not the other way about—and she has only 18 more days to live. The English translation of the title of one of the first songs, Harbridge tells us in one of the many moments she steps out of character to address us directly, shamelessly abandoning her French accent because ‘it hurts’, is ‘Why Do We Love It When Sluts Go Wild?’

If the show’s Fringe origins look a little exposed on the spacious Dunstan Playhouse stage, the energy of Harbridge, ably supported by Ben Gerrard and Garth Holcombe in a shifting array of minor roles, produces a shrinking effect, as do her forays into the audience—dragging hapless members into an onstage orgy or assailing them with feather-filled pillows—and Michael Hankin’s intimate set, a wide circular bed against a painted backdrop of heavy curtains. Steven Kreamer performs Basil Hogios’ score live, employing keyboard, glockenspiel, and the R&B-style beats that underpin many of the songs.

Harbridge’s voice is terrific, and she has created a script that, though more or less chronological and faithful to the known details of Duplessis’ biography, is dynamic and compelling, rife with sexual and scatological humour, and sharing something of the subversive silliness of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Blackadder. Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, another iteration of the Deplessis story, is the subject of much ridicule—a twisted tribute, perhaps, given many obvious similarities—and humorously anachronistic references abound, from Beyoncé to AIDS and spam email.

Harbridge wonders, frequently, at the moral of it all. ‘The greatest thing you’ll ever learn…’ she begins over and over, aping Moulin Rouge!’s Christian. One of her conclusions is ‘don’t masturbate to Radiohead’.

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