I saw this show as late as last year, as part of Tamarama Rock Surfers’ season at the Old Fitzroy Hotel. That now turns out to have been something of a harbinger, for the pub has now terminated TRS’ tenure, which makes their pursuit of a second venue, one much more consistent with the company’s name, look smart and prescient.
It’s part and parcel of The Reginald (the small downstairs Seymour) theatre’s mission to curate new, but also outstanding existing works, that deserve revival. Songs For The Fallen easily falls into that category. Just a few days ago, I wrote a piece on Brian Lucas’ Performance Anxiety. One of the breakthrough qualities of that work is its determination to do away with demarcations between theatre, dance, and other performative arts and embrace them all, or some, as is fitting and expedient. Force Majeure is another company one might cite as proceeding along similar lines.
This presentation, by Critical Stages and Michael Sieders, is also impartial as to deployment of disciplines that, traditionally at least, rarely find much convergence. Indeed, it’s hard to discern or decide whether Songs For The Fallen is a drama, comedy, musical, cabaret, or something else entirely; though the last would seem to be the most apt, if inept, descriptor.
Sheridan Harbridge has written and stars in this show about The Lady Of The Camellias, Marie Duplessis, famous for saying, “it’s not me that dances too fast, it’s the violins that play too slow”. In many ways, this glib quote is emblematic of her life, which she tore at, rather than tinkered or toyed with. Whatever outward affectations of success she may’ve donned (haute couture; jewellery; champagne), there was one thing she never wore on her sleeve. In fact, she warned herself against it: “It’s wrong to have a heart when you’re a courtesan; you can die from it.” She was, of course, immortalised by one of her prominent lovers, Alexandre Dumas, the younger, who, by means of La Dame Aux Camelias, endowed her with the poetic sobriquet by which she’s so widely known. Among her other lovers was Franz Liszt.
Thanks to consumption, she lived to the ripe, old age of 23. But she crammed a lot of living into this glimpse, this glance, at life. I’m no expert on the woman Dumas renamed Marguerite Gautier for literary purposes, but Harbridge alludes to a sexually and otherwise abusive childhood at the hands of a drunken father who ended up in penury (not even a nice place to visit), with nothing left to sell but his daughter. Her grandmother was a prostitute; her grandfather, a priest. At 15, the (by all reports) exceptionally striking young Marie (then still Alphonsine Rose Plessis) ended up working in a dress shop. She was also sharply intelligent and pragmatic (it’s sobering how effectively poverty can give rise to pragmatism), soon realising men would pay handsomely to be in her company. She became a much-favoured courtesan, which afforded her an education; both formal and informal.
Harbridge’s stunning, bold piece is really, I suspect, part fact, part fiction; a speculation on the life and times of this femme fatale, so memorably embodied in popular culture. For example, there’s George Cukor’s classic film adaptation of Camille, which sees Garbo collapse into the arms of Robert Taylor. More indelible still is Verdi’s La Traviata, based on Dumas’ own dramatic adaptation of his, essentially, (auto)biographical novel. Harbridge makes reference, too, to Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (with at least one cruel, cheap joke, at Nicole’s expense, but hell, she can afford it) too, which is interesting, since the collective aesthetic of this show is, it’s suddenly struck me, not a million miles from it. First of all, Basil Hogios, musical director and composer, who has a presence on stage, has written a set of epic, pop-gothic, power ballads that would be right at home, I reckon, in the Baz oeuvre. Perhaps this isn’t beyond his thinking. Secondly, neither is Michael Hankin and Andrea Espinoza’s sumptuous, scarlet-and-gold set design, part boudoir, part toy box, out-of-step with Catherine Martin’s set design. Thirdly, Lisa Mimmocchi’s costumes would seem to pay similar homage. And all of it lit, evocatively and provocatively, by Teegan Lee. Of course, I expect The Reg production comes a little cheaper than Baz and Cath.
Actually, if you really want to keep tabs, this is a story that’s been told in 19 films, three ballets and countless musicals.
Though it was opening night and one might expect a kind of adrenaline-fuelled near-perfection, the performers were either nervous or distracted, perhaps, as the show didn’t run as smoothly as last year, at the subterranean Ol’ Fitz. Puzzling. Could they be a little weary of it? Certainly, I’m not, so ’twas a shame. I expect the director, Shane Anthony, might’ve had some notes.
That said, there’s not much else to quibble, carp or complain about. Harbridge’s script is full of surprises and she’s a bustiered bombshell, as Jackie, sitting in the front you found out, first-hand, for part of the schtick is to crash through the fourth wall, repeatedly and unpredictably. It keeps things edgy. Us too.
Anthony sums up the elements of surprise in describing his own, with the finished show. ‘Sheridan first approached me with the idea to stage a version of The Lady Of The Camellias over a year ago. I’d no idea the result would be a bawdry farce; irreverent, silly and packed with great songs.’
Garth Holcombe acts as both a narrator and translator, buoying of a number of the recurring linguistic motifs of the comedy, such as the implicit, trivial puzzlement over the words pomme (apple) and pomme frites (fried potato). It’s typical of the quirkiness of the work that, amidst moments of high narrative drama the tension should be broken with throwaway gags. He’s also a doctor (one of the funniest jokes is at the very beginning, when the doctor is asked how long Marie has to live. “It’s hard to say,” he reflects, before venturing the precision of “18 days”), Dumas and provides backing vocals and percussion.
Ben Gerrard plays just about everyone else, from Marie’s faithful maid, Clothilde (who he plays with a dainty femininity), to the foppish Agenor de Guiche (who he plays with dainty femininity). And then there’s the death-on-two-legs Count de Stackelberg. His flair for comedy is all of these roles, and others, is pronounced.
Harbridge herself is a marvel, really taking on the role of Marie as she imagines her. Her approach couldn’t be more playful, or downright mischievous. For example, early on, she tells us she’s tiring of her faux French accent and will, at any moment, lapse into a neutral one. She has a soaring singing voice and a vanquishing way as a wise-arse wench. Better yet, this is a work in progress: there are flourishes here that I don’t remember from the earlier outing.
Well-behaved women, it’s been said, don’t make history. That’s why Marie is so fucking famous. And, on a similar basis, Harbridge and collaborators ought to be too. Songs For The Fallen doesn’t fall very far short of a tour de farce.
The details: Songs For The Fallen plays The Reginald, Seymour Centre until March 16. Tickets on the venue website.