In The 20’s and all that dissonanceRevered cabaret artist Meow Meow weaves a masterful narrative around the relationships between social and aesthetic discord and rupture in the early 20th century.
From the beginning of the first act, she frames the story by taking stock of the year 1922. It is no coincidence that she marks the 100th anniversary of this era. All the components of the show – the poetry that dissolves the language, the historical details and the earth-shattering tones of the compositions she chooses – yield a compelling combination of dark foreboding and relentless experimentalism.
Its narration, as well as the musical arrangements, expresses the spirit of modernism and reflects the breakdown of values that was occurring in Europe between the two great wars.
Ultimately, the show is about the relationship between social collapse and fascism, and the relationship of the arts to this process. It is a thought-provoking and beautifully assembled work that examines the social fabric that gave rise to the first era of European fascism from the perspective of the rising second era, now. The theme of the collapse of Enlightenment ideals of harmony and reason is recurrent. Meow Meow makes this explicit only in an aside, but his intention is clear: periods of great experimentation also arouse the desire to repress them.
Although the show sometimes feels like a work in progress, Meow Meow’s skillful, witty and highly entertaining performance expertise keeps the show together and turns uncertain times into successes. It begins with a slapstick comedy routine of her entering the stage, but soon gives way to pianist Aura Go knocking her off the piano stool to perform the first composition, Francis Picabia’s minimalist opus, The American Nursecomposed of three notes “played ad infinitum”.
The rest of the first act is a well-balanced and delightfully organized exchange between Meow Meow and the OSM musicians, covering the music of Hindemith Chamber music n°2 for piano and 12 solo instrumentspoems by Kurt Schwitters and Tristan Tzara, classic songs by Brecht and Weill, and others, such as “Ich Bin ein vamp” and “Wenn ick mal tot bin”.
These numbers give cabaret’s supreme entertainer the opportunity to strut some of the genre’s classics from the height of his artistic flowering. In particular, his delivery of Schwitters cigarren and the rhythmic poetry of Edith Sitwell alongside Walton Facade allow it to shine. A clever use of light and costume makes Hollander’s interpretation Wenn ick badly tot bin (When I’m dead) one of the highlights of the evening.
Act 2 includes only The soldier’s story, by Igor Stravinsky and CF Ramuz; an hour of twisted, dissonant folk themes and songs played on strings and percussion, accompanying text encapsulating the self-destruction of 1920s Europe. It’s a story of greed and succumbing to the lure of evil. Conductor and violinist Christopher Moore performs the role of the devil with aplomb.
Even in the grand auditorium, Meow Meow deploys its cabaret skills in direct audience participation to great effect. She elicits plenty of laughs, though sometimes it seems like she’s expecting applause when there isn’t – perhaps pointing to a clash of genre conventions between the MSO-trained classical music crowd. and the rhythms of the cabaret show.
The orchestra, conducted by co-creator Moore, gives a competent interpretation of the compositions but sometimes lacks expressive clarity, perhaps indicating that this is a work in the early stages of development. However, being the seasoned performer that she is, Meow Meow turns those mistakes into triumphs. What is clear is the shared appreciation of the music and the content between the musicians and the narrator. It’s a labor of love.
Read: Theater Review: The Mousetrap
After the encores, Meow returns and plays a tiny recording of the three notes of Picabia’s signature composition, ad infinitum. And the cycle continues.
The 20’s and all that dissonance
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
VSconductor: Christopher Moore
Co-curator, singer and narrator: Meow Meow
Piano: Aura Go
The 20’s and all that dissonance was performed at the Melbourne Recital Center on October 6 and 8, 2022.