The end of the year is rushing up like a charging rhino. Melbourne theatre has its traditional means of signalling this milestone - widespread admissions of astonishment that Christmas is only 34 sleeps away, the issuing of phalanxes of party invitations, and, of course, the Christmas shows, crowd-pleasers that fill the houses with cheer and, hopefully, audiences. The Malthouse and the MTC have two winners this year with Meow Meow's Little Match Girl and The Importance of Being Earnest.
Meow Meow is not so much an artist as a phenomenon. She likes to have her cake and eat it too, while simultaneously throwing it at her audience. No performer could get away with it unless they had nerves of titanium and the charisma of an anti-Christ: Meow Meow does, because she's Meow Meow.
Anyone who's experienced her cabaret act will know the breathless feeling that the whole tottering edifice might collapse at any moment, the increasing tension of frustration and delight as the world's most accomplished theatrical tease refuses the moment of climax again and again, delivering in the final moment with some heart-stopping version of a masterpiece such as Surabaya Johnny.
In Little Match Girl, Meow Meow again moves her prodigious abilities onto a larger stage, collaborating with musical director Iain Grandage to create an intoxicating mixture of music and Meow Meowness, under the sharp direction of Marion Potts. Here the conceit is Hans Christian Andersen's story, in which a starving, abused girl is staring into the windows of the rich on Christmas Eve, as she freezes to death outside.
Don't, however, expect an adaptation: the story is rather the show's informing metaphor. Meow Meow points out that the Little Match Girl has never gone away, and that homeless, abused children are dying in every city on the planet. "Maybe it's too much to expect," she says, "that a song will change the world..." And of course, as Meow Meow knows as well as anybody, it is. The surprise is that anyone should raise the idea.
It opens with one of Anna Cordingley's most spectacularly lush sets (beautifully lit, or, in some cases, unlit, by Paul Jackson): a long thrust, with art deco floor lights, silver curtains, a huge chandelier. We enjoy this for perhaps five minutes before the whole thing is plunged into complete blackness by a small explosion in the lighting box, and Meow Meow is scrambling over the darkened seats of the auditorium, bullying audience members to lend her iPhones (which, astonishingly, they do), or to hold torches ("my face! on my face!"), or to power a bicycle generator. One particularly harassed audience member turns out to be music theatre star Mitchell Butel, who proves to be much more than a foil to Meow Meow's incandescence, and has a couple of show-stoppers himself.
As well as comedy, the darkness permits some powerful moments of intimacy: Meow Meow singing lit by hand-held torches in a cavernous space, or lighting a series of matches that immediately splutter and die. Of course the lights come back on, eventually, in one of the more gorgeous coups de theatre we've seen this year.
There's always been a strong smell of the Weimar Republic about Meow Meow (reinforced by her opening remarks being in German, until she remembers with a start that she is in Melbourne). And it's this which makes her work feel so contemporary: she brings a defiant spark to the darkness of our times, although it is a light that, in the end, only illuminates the shadows. One of the highlights of the show is her rendition of Laurie Anderson's The Dream Before, a tribute to Walter Benjamin's vision of the Angel of History flying backwards into a storm as the rubble of progress heaps up ruinously before its face.
Meow Meow is the embodiment of intellectual eroticism, supple and perilous as a flame: you'd have to have a heart of mud to resist a show that carelessly folds Richard Wagner, Walter Benjamin, The Magnetic Fields, Laurie Anderson and Noel Coward into one heady mixture. The energy of its theatricality is sparked by continuous contrast, which Peter Brook once claimed to be the basis of all theatre: at one moment, it is all heart-breaking poignancy; in the next, all heartlessness. Irresistible.
If there is such a thing as a sure hit, the Melbourne Theatre Company's production of The Importance of Being Earnest, starring Geoffrey Rush as Lady Bracknell, is it. The show is all but booked out, although I believe the MTC is holding daily ticket raffles for last minute seats. Simon Phillips's farewell show as artistic director is a remake of his 1988 production, which featured an astonishingly beautiful and ingenious Beardsley set: a giant Yellow Book opened by the butler (I saw Frank Thring in this role, and will never forget his superb loathing as he surveyed the audience) to reveal black and white pop-up sets.
The original designer, Tony Tripp, died in 2003, and his design is recreated by Richard Roberts and Tracy Grant Lord (who realised the sumptuous costumes). Geoffrey Rush and Jane Menelaus, who played John Worthing and Gwendolen in the original production, are respectively Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism in this one. It's fair to say that this is a production rich with nostalgia: so many of the original cast members - Monica Maughan, Ruth Cracknell, Frank Thring and Gordon Chater - have since died. Tempus fugit, indeed.
Back in the present, the show pretty much lives up to expectations. Phillips is at his best with this kind of quicksilver text: his production skitters over Wilde's profound surfaces with stylish ease. To his credit, Rush doesn't camp up Lady Bracknell, and makes a frighteningly convincing bellows-voiced aunt, a redoutable galleon in full sail. Christie Whelan (Gwendolen) and Emily Barclay (Cecily) are stand outs, handling the mercurial text with deceptive suppleness. On opening night, Patrick Brammall (Algy) and Toby Schmitz (John Worthing) seemed constrained, sometimes a little stilted, although this lifted in the second act. And I guess nobody could stop Bob Hornery from outrageously mugging the role of the senile butler, Merriman.
The artifice of Wilde's writing is heightened by touches such as freezing the characters at the end of each scene, so they become images frozen against the pages of the book. I suspect that the symmetries of Phillips's blocking, which became increasingly mannered towards the end, might have strained Wilde's notions of taste: asymmetry is, after all, one of the necessary cross-grains of beauty. But it feels churlish to nitpick a production which so artfully fulfils its own expectations of sentiment and style. A foregone winner, as I said.
Pictures: top: Mitchell Butel and Meow Meow in Little Match Girl; bottom, Patrick Brammall and Toby Schmitz in The Importance of Being Earnest. Photos by Jeff Busby
Little Match Girl, created and performed by Meow Meow and Iain Grandage, directed by Marion Potts. Sets and costumes by Anna Cordingley, lighting by Paul Jackson. Featuring Mitchell Butel. Malthouse Theatre, Merlyn, until December 4. The Famous Spiegeltent, Sydney Festival, January 6-29.
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, directed by Simon Phillips. Original design by Tony Tripps, set realiser Richard Roberts, costume realiser Tracy Grant Lord, lighting design Matt Scott. With Patrick Brammall, Bob Hornery, Toby Schmitz, Geoffrey Rush, Christie Whelan, Jane Menelaus, Emily Barclay and Tony Taylor. Melbourne Thatre Company @ the Sumner Theatre, until January 14.
Tuesday, November 22, 2011