Forget the cliches of women in top hats and bustiers singing tired songs about heartbreak. Auckland Live’s International Cabaret Season is full of energy, emotion, feminism and mischief, writes Sam Brooks.
There’s a billion definitions of cabaret, from the clinical to the etymological to the base. For me, cabaret takes the best things of live music and distills it down to two things: Fun and feeling.
Over the past few years at the Auckland Live International Cabaret Season, I’ve tried to catch as many shows as I can. The flipside of being on the opposite side of the world from where most of the best, bravest and riskiest cabaret is happening is that when something gets brought over, it’s because it’s really good and you need to see it. And it means the local productions have to be on that level too.
Having seen two of the shows in the festival already in previous outings, the absolutely stunning and tear jerking Starman and the Kiwi-bred glam-rock musical That Bloody Woman, I can say that 2017 looks to carry on the trend of really bloody good cabaret being seen on our shores.
But cabaret is a dirty word for some people! It conjures up images of old folk sitting around tiny tables while a woman sings dated, boring songs on a piano. This is not what cabaret is (even though that does sound kind of great to me) and you’re wrong for thinking it!
This is what cabaret actually is, and also why you should go see it:
It’s basically a more fun version of a concert
Live music is great. I feel that’s an objective fact I shouldn’t need to convince you of.
But sometimes it can be annoying or irritating. The venue might be bad, they might make you sit down (or make you stand up, if that’s your particular irritant), it might be too crowded and gross.
It’s still worth it, though. It’s a chance to see someone you might’ve listened to for years, to hear that song you’ve listened to over and over again staring at your bedroom ceiling live, and to hear the person who sings it banter a bit.
Cabaret takes the best parts of a concert and gets rid of all the bad ones. It’s not crowded, the sound is generally gorgeous (most of the shows in the festival are in the stunning Town Hall Concert Chamber) and you’re not gonna lose a seat at your table if you want to go and get a drink.
The performers are at the top of their game
Actors can act, dancers can dance, singers can sing; sometimes things overlap. Cabaret performers have to do all three, and be charming as hell at the same time. Often they have to write the whole damn thing themselves.
And the thing is, when you have to do all these things at the same time, you tend to get really good at it. And if a festival is willing to drag you all the way over from Edinburgh, or the US, or Germany, then there’s a good chance that you’ll have honed these talents to the finest point. Velvet is a great example of this. The show has done the rounds at the two biggest Fringe festivals in the world, as well as a stint at the Sydney Opera House. It’s a finely and fantastically tuned machine at this point, it’s tried and true. (And, as a big bonus, it features the considerable talents of 70s disco queen Marcia Hines lending her voice to some more disco classics. It’s a huge get for the festival, and sure to be a highlight of it.)
And our homegrown talent isn’t anything to sniff at either: Esther Stephens has one of the most remarkable voices in the country, and she’s taking up the white dress and ten dollar notes of Kate Sheppard for That Bloody Woman again. It was one of my favourite performances of last year, and is guaranteed to be a highlight of this festival.
And Play On features a stunning cast of some of New Zealand’s best performers including Julia Deans (read on to hear how she left me in tears two years ago), Paul McLaney, Ria Hall, Laughton Kora, and Mara TK.
And also another act at this festival (doing a different show, however):
You can drink at your table – and you should!
I think there’s not a single entertainment experience on this earth that can’t improved with a bottle of wine. Concert? Wine! Bowling? Wine! Sport? Probably beer for most of you, but a bottle of wine can’t hurt!
Theatre functions a bit better when you’re a bit tipsy, and by that rule, cabaret functions best when you’re sloshed, and the way that the shows work, it totally encourages you to get sloshed beforehand – and then buy some more during the show. You can get up during cabaret shows and go to the bar! It’s fine! Often, the performers will encourage you to do so! We’ve been conditioned so much during shows or concerts that if we go to the bar we’ll lose our spot at the front that we queued outside from like 11am to get, thanks Florence and/or the Machine (this is me perhaps speaking from personal experience).
But in cabaret, you can get up, keep watching the act, get your bottle of wine, then go back and sit down. Why? Because it’s chill. They want you to have fun. Do you need alcohol to have fun? Absolutely not.
But, as a smart person once said, “Drink to make a good time better, not to make a bad time good.”
It’s pretty much an hour
The big turn-off with a lot of shows is the running time. Even for someone like me, who genuinely enjoys his three hour marathon shows where angels burst through the ceiling or big Midwestern families have feelings, the running time of a show can be enough for me to pass on tickets. By the time the entire thing is over there’s no time for hanging out after and discussing the show, or even a quick drink with the people you shared this experience with. Cabaret doesn’t have this problem.
It’s a one-and-done kind of thing. You don’t need an interval because you can get up whenever and get a drink (which is the only thing you should do in an interval; the bathroom is for the weak). If you’re crazy like me, this means you can fit several shows into a night! If you’re a normal, adjusted person, it means you can get dinner, see a show, have a drink afterwards. That means the show becomes the highlight of a great night, rather than the thing you’re forced to plan your whole week around.
In fact cabaret wants you to go out after the show. For the first two weeks of the festival, from Thursday through Saturday, they’ll be hosting a secret piano bar running late into the night to celebrate the naughty side of cabaret. Just a short walk from the Town Hall, cabaret ticket holders (and those on the guestlist) get exclusive entry where they will be looked after by a revolving VIP host. Shhh don’t tell anyone.
When it hits you, it really hits you
I think of the most emotional and real moments I’ve had in a theatre – and I’m currently sitting at about 80 shows seen this year, so take my word for it – has often come from cabaret, even from this very festival in previous years. When I think of those moments, I think of sitting next to a group of friends watching Lady Rizo close out her set with her original song Cherry Lane Saint, or Julia Deans doing an encore of Joni Mitchell’s River. Those moments are the ‘hold the person you came with so they don’t fall apart’ but also so ‘they’ll hold you right back so you don’t fall apart’ moments.
Cabaret pulls together everything to bring itself to you. It’s the drama of it, it’s the theatricality – every element is being used to make you feel something. One moment in particular which sticks out for me is not from this local festival but from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year, during an 11pm variety show hosted by Miss Frisky (who’s performing her Karaoke Experience this year, which is my absolute pick of the festival, hands down. If you’re not seeing Miss Frisky you are doing something fundamentally incorrect with your life).
It was towards the end of this show – everybody in the room was a little bit drunk – and Miss Frisky finished up the show with a gorgeous piano cover of Spandau Ballet’s ‘Gold’ (an undeniably tacky and potentially even bad song) while a circus performer spun on silks (which is an inexcusably crude way to frame this incredibly beautiful and very difficult act) throughout. The entire stage was bathed in blue and the song was rearranged in such a way it felt like it was coming directly from the heavens. I’m not a big crier, because I am dead on the inside like most theatre people, but I bawled my goddamned eyes out.
Cabaret gives you moments like this. That’s why you see cabaret.
Get ready to stay out late, set your senses alight, fall head over heels, and go a little bit wild this Auckland Live International Cabaret Season (14 September to 1 October). A suite of international and local provocateurs and cultural icons will be unleashed across the city centre, over 18 evocative nights. Get your tickets today.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.