What’s new, pussy­cat

There’s more to Meow Meow, aka ac­tor- in­tel­lect Melissa Mad­den Gray, than meets the eye, writes Fiona Scott- Norman

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts -

EMO­TION isn’t fash­ion­able in Aus­tralia, which is prob­a­bly why Melissa Mad­den Gray’s depth of feel­ing is the most strik­ing thing about her. Sure, she’s beau­ti­ful, so­phis­ti­cated, in­tel­lec­tual and a world- renowned per­for­mance artist, de­con­struc­tion­ist cabaret per­former, opera singer, ac­tor, co­me­dian and dancer — with hon­ours de­grees in law, fine art and Ger­man — but it’s her open­heart­ed­ness that en­thrals from the get- go.

It’s only five min­utes into this in­ter­view at Melbourne’s Malt­house Theatre, where Gray is to ap­pear in a rein­ven­tion of Shake­speare’s Venus and Ado­nis , and she has tears in her eyes. Not be­cause she has spent all morn­ing in hospi­tal hav­ing treat­ment for a dan­ger­ous in­fec­tion in her foot but be­cause she was so in­spired by the per­for­mance of Bri­tish co­me­dian- philoso­pher Daniel Kit­son at the Melbourne In­ter­na­tional Com­edy Fes­ti­val.

‘‘ He made me ex­cited about theatre again, showed that it doesn’t have to be a lot of toss,’’ says Gray, who was reared in Melbourne and calls the Vic­to­rian cap­i­tal home when she’s not travers­ing the globe with a suit­case stuffed with se­quins and skin- tight fan­cies.

‘‘ When I first went to New York I saw a lot of art and avant- garde theatre, and it was all so pre­cious. I thought, how could I jus­tify be­ing a per­former if all I’m see­ing is acts of self- delu­sion? I live in ter­ror of be­ing self- in­dul­gent. That’s why I love com­edy. I got weepy dur­ing his ( Kit­son’s) show. I was on the edge, I felt more hu­man. I es­pe­cially liked that he couldn’t be cat­e­gorised. I don’t like gen­res.’’

Gray, a com­pelling, mul­ti­skilled per­for­mance artist whose star is firmly on the rise, gives the im­pres­sion of life lived to the ab­so­lute. Her pri­or­i­ties are in­tel­lec­tual rigour, fem­i­nism, emo­tional open­ness, com­edy and work­ing very hard. Bet­ter known in Shang­hai, New York and Euro­pean cap­i­tals than here, she is so fre­quently abroad that she’s es­sen­tially itin­er­ant.

‘‘ You know how it is: ‘ Wher­ever I lay my boa’,’’ says Gray, who de­scribes her­self as a highly crit­i­cal op­ti­mist’’. In her teens, Gray was de­ter­mined to be­come a bal­let dancer de­spite such se­vere sco­l­io­sis that she wore a fi­bre­glass sup­port 24 hours a day.

She fin­ished her law de­gree by cor­re­spon­dence dur­ing her sum­mer hol­i­days, stud­ied fine art, post- struc­tural­ist and fem­i­nist the­ory at the Univer­sity of Melbourne be­tween per­form­ing com­edy in the law re­vues and plays di­rected by Michael Kan­tor, and won a schol­ar­ship to study in Ber­lin, where she com­pleted two the­ses, one in English, one in Ger­man.

‘‘ I think I’m over­driven be­cause I’ve al­ways been used to hav­ing all my hours filled quite in­tensely. I can’t re­mem­ber a time when I wasn’t singing and do­ing a lot of talk­ing. I don’t re­mem­ber a time when I wasn’t over­anx­ious about want­ing to do more. There’s so much to con­sume, to get into your brain.’’

This at­ti­tude, in­ten­sity and frankly daz­zling ar­ray of ac­com­plish­ments ex­plains a great deal about Gray, who is be­com­ing well known for her ad­dled, se­duc­tive, hi­lar­i­ous and uber- sex­ual cabaret char­ac­ter Meow Meow, and whose CV strongly im­plies that you can have ev­ery­thing.

She has per­formed avant- garde opera by Liza Lim with con­tem­po­rary mu­sic ensem­ble Eli­sion in Ja­pan and Europe, and com­edy on the Seven Net­work’s sketch show Big Bite .

There has been per­for­mance art with Robyn Or­lin in Ber­lin, tango with Paco Liana and Pina Bausch, and she has con­trib­uted to a John Cage world pre­miere and given mas­ter­classes on ex­tended vo­cal tech­nique for David Moss’s In­sti­tute for Liv­ing Voice in Bel­gium.

As Meow she has per­formed mul­ti­ple sea­sons at the Fa­mous Spiegel­tent, ap­peared in David Bowie’s High Line fes­ti­val in New York and is fea­tured in Ger­man Van­ity Fair ( the in­ter­view, nat­u­rally, con­ducted in Ger­man). With her aca­demic rigour ( and a the­sis on outre per­former An­nie Sprin­kle un­der her belt) and take- no­pris­on­ers glam­our, Gray brings a par­tic­u­lar mind­set to the roles she cre­ates or ac­cepts.

‘‘ I’m ei­ther do­ing com­edy or ex­treme con­tem­po­rary opera with Eli­sion and most of that has to do with women’s bod­ies,’’ she says. ‘‘ I wouldn’t say I just do women’s work, but I do want to rit­u­alise or ex­or­cise or hon­our ei­ther lost souls or un­sung sto­ries.

‘‘ For me, the body, the sex drive, the life force, it’s all in­ter­twined. A piece I’m writ­ing at the minute is based on a friend’s grand­mother who was the pret­ti­est girl in the vil­lage in Poland dur­ing World War II. Armies of all sorts came through and she be­came the pret­ti­est whore. Then she just dis­ap­peared.

‘‘ I love strong sin­gle women. I went to Fir­bank, an all- girls gram­mar school, and it was kind of utopian. I spent the long­est time imag­in­ing I was El­iz­a­beth I. The only prob­lem was that it didn’t pre­pare me for the re­al­ity of the dou­ble stan­dard of the out­side world.

‘‘ It took me quite a while to get a grip on the fact that no mat­ter how much you think you’re mak­ing sense to some­one, at the end of the day they’re still look­ing at your boobs.’’

Clearly Gray, a mu­sic theatre grad­u­ate from the West­ern Aus­tralian Academy of Per­form­ing Arts, is an in­spired choice for a part in Venus and Ado­nis . Mar­ion Potts has di­rected the adap­ta­tion of Shake­speare’s poem, with Gray as the ul­ti­mately dis­il­lu­sioned love god­dess.

‘‘ Fi­nally per­form­ing Shake­speare is in­cred­i­ble, so mov­ing. I mean, ev­ery­thing’s al­ready been said about him. But I’m hav­ing eth­i­cal prob­lems with Venus be­cause she kind of rapes Ado­nis in the play. I keep bring­ing a judg­ment on to Venus that she will not leave that boy alone and the only thing I can use to ex­cuse her is that she’s a de­ity. She doesn’t un­der­stand what’s go­ing on un­til she loses him: the god­dess be­comes wise through hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence.’’

The pro­duc­tion is am­bi­tious and ex­per­i­men­tal. It’s a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the Malt­house and Bell Shake­speare, and is the first project for Mind’s Eye, Bell’s new de­vel­op­ment arm. The play is a two- han­der, with Gray and Susan Prior both rep­re­sent­ing Venus, and the au­di­ence rep­re­sent­ing the hap­less Ado­nis.

‘‘ It’s quite sexy, in terms of brain sexy,’’ Gray says. ‘‘ It’s set in a ho­tel room and it’s all open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion. Has Venus been left, is she wait­ing for some­one, has she killed some­one? The set’s full of sym­bol­ism. As a wo­man who trav­els all the time, you do sit on the bed and won­der who’s sat there be­fore you. You do sit in the bath­tub and think, ugh, what’s that stain?’’

Gray’s char­ac­ter Meow, an ex­tra­or­di­nary, gor­geous but los­ing it cabaret diva, is in some ways the ex­treme re­al­i­sa­tion of Gray’s tal­ents and aca­demic the­o­ries. Meow wows wher­ever she per­forms and has her own iden­tity that ex­tends off stage: she is of­ten to be seen out so­cial­is­ing.

Gray, how­ever, re­fuses to dis­cuss Meow, in much the same wide- eyed way that Bruce Wayne would refuse to dis­cuss Bat­man. The mys­tique is de­lib­er­ate.

Ju­lia Holt, artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Ade­laide Cabaret Fes­ti­val, has pro­grammed Meow twice and is in awe of Gray’s abil­i­ties.

‘‘ She’s the ul­ti­mate quadru­ple threat be­cause she’s ac­com­plished in ev­ery as­pect you need to be a cabaret per­former: singing, danc­ing, act­ing. She has an ex­tremely so­phis­ti­cated sense of hu­mour, both ver­bal and phys­i­cal, and that sets her apart,’’ Holt says. ‘‘ She has so many other skills you don’t ex­pect her to be funny, too. Her grasp of the his­tory of cabaret is very deep.

‘‘ She’s ex­cit­ing be­cause she takes so many risks. She has in­cred­i­ble au­di­ence in­ter­ac­tion skills. And she goes against some of the ba­sic rules of theatre and makes it work for her.’’

Gray uses glam­our and her body to make peo­ple think. ‘‘ I do some­times teeter on the edge of bo­som mad­ness. It can just be ill- fit­ting cloth­ing, it de­pends. In Amer­ica I’ve been known to pop my breast in a glass of wine and smoke a cig­a­rette at the same time, just to get all the ways of of­fend­ing New York­ers out of the way. It’s the ridicu­lous­ness of the hor­ror at the breast.’’

Born in Can­berra ( she likes to say it doesn’t show), Gray moved to Melbourne when she was two with her newly sin­gle mother, Clare, and grew up with her ma­ter­nal grand­mother. Clare trained as a lawyer and, even though Gray al­ways wanted to be a per­former, she fol­lowed her mother’s ex­am­ple and also stud­ied law.

‘‘ I felt I needed to do it. I saw how fright­en­ing it was to be young and with a baby and have no

‘ No mat­ter how much you think you’re mak­ing sense, they’re still look­ing at your boobs’

way of sup­port­ing your­self. But Mum was spook­ily young and groovy, and she would take me to the Pram Fac­tory and the early days of Cir­cus Oz, prob­a­bly from when I was four or five.

‘‘ There was no dis­tinc­tion be­tween high and low art. I re­mem­ber Sleep­ing Beauty , my first bal­let, and re­fus­ing to leave the theatre. And bril­liant co­me­di­ans like Eve­lyn Krape and Sue In­gle­ton, I was in love with them all.’’

An only child, she had a nur­tured up­bring­ing. Ac­cess week­ends were spent with her fa­ther, Neil, and watch­ing the television drama The Se­cret Army, which sparked her in­ter­est in World War II and the French Re­sis­tance. She also spent a lot of time with her step­mother’s par­ents, whom she de­scribes as in­cred­i­bly kind.

‘‘ I had, I think, an ec­cen­tric but re­ally glo­ri­ous up­bring­ing. There was al­ways, al­ways mu­sic, and earnest dis­cus­sions about feel­ings. There was a huge love of learn­ing and com­mu­ni­cat­ing.’’

While Gray’s child­hood pro­vided her with the hunger and abil­ity to pur­sue a pro­foundly sat­is­fy­ing and mul­ti­fac­eted ca­reer, it also gave her the emo­tional intelligence to ques­tion her sin­gle­mind­ed­ness. She’s hav­ing talks about an ex­tended Broad­way sea­son for Meow, and Gray is in two minds: ‘‘ I don’t know how I feel about hav­ing a baby, but I think it would be a tragedy not to have one be­cause I was hang­ing out to have a Broad­way sea­son.’’

For now, though, Gray’s creative life is show­ing no sign of slack­ing. She re­turns to the Malt­house in Septem­ber for a Meow show called Vamp, di­rected by Kan­tor, and as soon as Venus and Ado­nis ends she’s off to work with Bausch in Ber­lin on a re­vival of the 1976 piece The Seven Deadly Sins .

‘‘ I was so ex­cited when I heard about that, I ran into a glass win­dow. The role I’m do­ing has been per­formed by Ute Lem­per. So no pres­sure.’’

For Gray it’s all about work­ing to her great­est abil­ity, then let­ting it go. ‘‘ I throw in as much as I can. I al­ways com­bine high, low and pop art. It’s all about in­ten­tion and per­cep­tion, isn’t it? And what goes on in be­tween, you can’t have any con­trol over. Do a show in one place and it’s per­for­mance art. Do it in an­other and it’s a sex­ist atroc­ity. I can do the most mean­ing­ful piece and some­one will still say: ‘ Great shoes.’ ’’ Venus and Ado­nis is at the Malt­house Theatre, Melbourne, un­til May 4.

No il­lu­sions: Main pic­ture, cabaret all- rounder Melissa Mad­den Gray; in­set, as Meow Meow

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