Review: Vamp ~ theatre notes

Monday, September 08, 2008

Review: Vamp

Vamp by Meow Meow and Iain Grandage, directed by Michael Kantor, musical direction by Iain Grandage. Designed by Anna Tregloan, lighting design by Paul Jackson, dramaturgy Maryanne Lynch, choreography Shaun Parker. Performed by Meow Meow with the Orchestra of Wild Dogs: Sam Anning, Iain Grandage, Martin Kay, Igor Oskolov and Ben Vanderwal. Malthouse Theatre and Sydney Opera House @ the Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse until September 20. Sydney Opera House, September 24-October 5. Bookings: (03) 9685 5111, (02) 9250 7777

Meow Meow is a phenomenon. She takes all the clich├ęs about the femme fatale and rolls them up into a glittering, hypnotic ball, which she tosses up into the air, drops, and then hurls viciously at the audience.

Metaphorically speaking, of course. But there’s something about Meow Meow that invites impossible metaphors. She works a dangerous art, creating performances which constantly tease us with the possibility of collapse.

A Meow Meow show has something of the fascination of watching Formula One racing: when is the car crash going to happen? Can that whiplash voice keep the forbidden desires she stirs under control? When is she going to snap and stop us from taking her to pieces with our eyes? Will her costume fall off again?

As a cabaret star, nay, legend, she’s been hailed from New York to Shanghai, and has worked with companies as diverse as Elision New Music Ensemble, Pina Bausch and the Opera Factory. She is an apocalyptic cabaret virtuoso, a trash goddess, a tragic diva, a predatory princess of the post-modern stage.

In Vamp, which is directed with what feels like a new and essential focus by Malthouse artistic director Michael Kantor, Meow Meow is unleashed into theatre. Here her celebration of the sexually charged woman – the “sexdeath” fascination of stars like Theda Bara, Marlene Dietrich, Louise Brooks – takes on Biblical proportions. Meow Meow is bad, as bad as Lilith and Eve, as bad as the Judaean princess Salome, who used her beauty to wreak a horrible revenge on John the Baptist, the man who refused to respond to her desire.

The evening opens with a macabre rendition of Mon Homme, sung as Meow Meow caresses a bloody dismembered head. And strung through the rest of the show like a series of pearls are extracts from Oscar Wilde’s decadent play Salome: the sonorous Biblical cadences of Salome’s yearning for John the Baptist – “Thy body is white like the lilies of the field that the mower hath never mowed” – and the beautiful speeches to the moon, sigil of madness and death and feminine mystery.

Wilde is only one of literally dozens of cultural allusions, though you have to be mighty quick to pick up all of them. The vamp’s doomed lovers are represented on stage as mutilated shop dummies, a vengeful tribute to the disturbingly ambiguous doll sculptures of Hans Bellmer, and her perorations to John the Baptist are prefaced by breathy pleas to “Johnny”, a reminder that Meow Meow does a superb version of Brecht and Weill’s Surabaya Johnny.

Footage projected during the show includes scenes from Alla Nazimova’s 1923 silent film of Salome and GW Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, in which Louise Brooks created the iconic figure of Lulu, Franz Wedekind’s tragic whore. And the songs reference a dizzying number of fascinating women, from Sarah Bernhardt to Montes, Mata Hari to Maria Callas.

The vamp here is a cultural construction, the vengeful, deadly product of the predatory male gaze. The destruction of her lovers is the mirror-image of how her lovers’ desire dislocates her being, their lust to possess making her an object even to herself. The vamp becomes at once the icon of female potency and is disempowered by her imprisonment in her sensual and inevitably aging flesh. It is perhaps not surprising that, like Salome, the only man she loves is the man who does not desire her. As Brecht’s whore Jenny laments (in that song Meow Meow doesn’t sing, but which echoes beneath this show): “You got no heart, Johnny, but oh, I love you so much.”

All this referential weight falls as lightly and rapidly as rain in a show that runs at top speed from the moment the star appears on (or, more correctly, off) stage. The figure of the vamp is filtered through Meow Meow’s tyrannical vulnerability, and is at once celebrated and satirised in the same way the act of theatre itself is constantly dismantled before our eyes. Shaun Parker's choreography shifts without warning, like the vamp herself, from the sublime to the ridiculous, and includes some spectacular aerial acrobatics.

But the occasion for the show, as it were, is the performance of “Seven Deadly Songs for the End of Time”, co-written by Meow Meow and Iain Grandage, which – as the star petulantly complains – contractual obligations require her to sing all the way through. Grandage’s music is the perfect counterpoint to Meow Meow, and itself a construction of allusions – Mahler, Jimmy Page, Weill – jammed together into a vital, breathing whole. And here wound tight by a very sharp band, the Orchestra of Wild Dogs.

It all adds up to a conceptual elegance and simplicity that is, given this show's complexity, perhaps surprising. Kantor’s direction is sparse and focused, with the excess on stage limited to Meow Meow’s performance. Anna Tregloan’s design reflects the lunar theme of the show as well as its cabaret roots with a round, intimate stage backed by a huge moon, on which the graphics and film extracts are projected. It is reached by a series of rickety steps perilously negotiated in high heels and is punctured by a door that leads “backstage” for Meow Meow’s costume changes. And mention must be made of Paul Jackson's superb lighting.

That magic voice teases, enthralls and seduces. And, finally, as all vamps must, moves us with her tragedy. It takes an excessive talent like Meow Meow to communicate the fin de siecle extremes of Wilde’s poetry. What Vamp demonstrates is Meow Meow’s profound dramatic instinct, which generates out of a dense melange of cultural allusion and play a sense of genuine tragedy. Oh, and she’s very, very funny.

Picture: Meow Meow as the Vamp.

A shorter version of this review appears in today's Australian.

1 comment:

John Branch said...

Wow--I really wish I could see that show. Meow Meow is another discovery I've made through your reviews. Thanks!