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