CON­NOIS­SEUR AND CLOWN

Barry Humphries be­lieves cabaret is ca­pa­cious enough to ac­com­mo­date even Sir Les Pat­ter­son, as he tells

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

What could be more mun­dane than order­ing cof­fee and toast in a ho­tel dining room, ex­cept that the ho­tel is a rather nice one in South Yarra and the break­fast com­pan­ion is Barry Humphries? With Humphries, the jester in plain clothes, such a sim­ple act as order­ing break­fast be­comes a game, an ex­change of wry ob­ser­va­tions, an oc­ca­sion for harm­less play.

Zack the young waiter has just told him there are no crois­sants. Would he like a blue­berry muf­fin in­stead?

“A strong flat white, and bring me some multi­grain toast,” Humphries says. The tone is ge­nial, gen­tle­manly, but the tim­ing is that of a per­for­mance. “With but­ter and some — be­lieve it or not — some Vegemite.”

You can hear Dame Edna some­where in the back­ground, gri­mac­ing at the men­tion of a sticky yeast ex­tract. “Thanks, Zack.” The waiter goes on his way. Humphries turns and his eyes twin­kle. “Who is that fat politi­cian?” I think you mean Clive Palmer, I say. “Yes, Sir Les has turned into Clive Palmer.” He re­con­sid­ers, as if prim­ing him­self for mis­chief. “No, Les is much nicer than Clive Palmer … Could you in­vent Clive Palmer? Could you?” And then: “Per­haps I did.”

We’re meet­ing Humphries in Mel­bourne dur­ing a visit to his home town, but the rea­son is to dis­cuss Ade­laide. Last year he was named

May 30-31, 2015 artis­tic direc­tor of the Ade­laide Cabaret Fes­ti­val, a 16-day pro­gram that has be­come the de facto na­tional show­case for grown-up mu­si­cal en­ter­tain­ments of all kinds, un­der the wide mar­quee of cabaret (so wide, in fact, it can ac­com­mo­date even Sir Les Pat­ter­son).

Humphries’s Ade­laide ap­point­ment came af­ter a fal­ter sev­eral years ago in which his name emerged as a pos­si­ble direc­tor of the city’s in­ter­na­tional arts fes­ti­val: a sug­ges­tion he says was knocked on the head by for­mer pre­mier Mike Rann. (“Since then I’ve met Rann, and this is all wa­ter un­der the bridge,” Humphries says, “but I was a bit hurt by all that.”)

The Ade­laide gig is a de­light for Humphries whose con­nec­tions with the city go back to his stu­dent days. He made his first trip out of Mel­bourne to at­tend a uni­ver­sity drama fes­ti­val there in 1953, and ap­peared in a play called The Wind of Heaven, about the mys­ti­cal ap­pear­ance of the Christ child in a Welsh min­ing vil­lage.

“It’s the sort of play that would last about one night in Mel­bourne,” he says. “It had no nu­dity, in­cest or po­lit­i­cal ref­er­ence. It was just about th­ese Welsh peo­ple.”

Zack brings the cof­fee and toast, but it’s not to Humphries’s spec­i­fi­ca­tions. “Could it be well done?” he says. Then, so­lic­i­tously: “Do you mind? It’s a bit pale. I do like it a bit sort of burnt.”

What is Humphries’s un­der­stand­ing cabaret?

“It is of course re­lated to vaudeville,” he says.

of “It’s a form of en­ter­tain­ment, gen­er­ally pre­sented in bars, small clubs, it tends to be more po­lit­i­cally sharp and sex­u­ally ex­plicit. There is a strong el­e­ment of the bur­lesque. It thrived in Paris in the late 19th cen­tury. It was painted by Lautrec and oth­ers. That was a form of cabaret.

“It then thrived in cen­tral Europe, par­tic­u­larly Ger­many and in Ber­lin. So in that great pe­riod of dis­il­lu­sion dur­ing and af­ter World War I, it reap­peared in sort of vir­u­lent form in Ber­lin, with some of the great ex­po­nents of this genre of the­atri­cal en­ter­tain­ment. Com­posers, writ­ers, all the best po­ets, could get work do­ing cabaret.”

Humphries mem­o­rably sur­veyed mu­sic of the Weimar era in a 2013 con­cert with Richard Tognetti’s Aus­tralian Cham­ber Orches­tra and singer Meow Meow. It was a pro­gram of zesty songs and orches­tral pieces by com­posers such as Kurt Weill, Paul Hin­demith and Ernst Krenek, and less familiar names such as Mis­cha Spo­lian­sky. This was mu­sic that the Nazis con­demned as de­gen­er­ate, En­tartete Musik.

Humphries told how, as a school­boy in Mel­bourne in the 1940s, he dis­cov­ered in a sec­ond-hand book­shop a stack of sheet mu­sic from the pe­riod: an in­tro­duc­tion that would be­come a life­long pas­sion.

Meow, sim­i­larly a devo­tee and ex­po­nent of Ger­man cabaret, re­calls vis­it­ing Humphries at his house in Lon­don at the be­gin­ning of their “uber-ex­trav­a­gant” col­lab­o­ra­tion, and find­ing in his art col­lec­tion and mu­sic a sen­si­bil­ity that res­onated with her own.

“I just burst into tears, be­cause of the beauty of the art on the walls,” she says. “He is so much about the beauty and the beast­li­ness of life, and he is fas­ci­nated by all of those things. That ob­vi­ously comes through in his work. It’s like th­ese bea­cons of light that you hang on to.”

Meow will ap­pear in Humphries’s Ade­laide pro­gram, in a con­cert of Weimar songs — about “sirens, trans­gres­sors and tragi-grotesques” — with mu­si­cal ar­range­ments by Iain Grandage. Although the ACO won’t be there, there’s talk of a re­group­ing of the 2013 col­lab­o­ra­tors, with Meow, Humphries and orches­tra tak­ing their

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