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Barry Humphries and Meow Meow interview - 'Politics and eroticism are a curious blend'
Barry Humphries, one of Australia's most famous theatrical exports of all time, is now 84 - and still very much both at it and with it, trying out new theatrical frontiers and partnerships. Dame Edna Everage, a character he first created over 60 years ago, is now a comedy icon: a self-styled Melbourne housewife turned superstar who hilariously skewed celebrity culture and then became a star in her own right, both of multiple West End runs and a brilliant TV talk show.
But today Humphries is himself - or at least a version of himself - as he talks, sometimes mischievously, sometimes seriously, about another passion of his: cabaret music of the Weimar Republic of the 1920s and the early 1930s that he's been a fan of since he was a schoolboy - and is now bringing to London's Barbican Theatre after previous runs at Sydney Opera House and the Edinburgh Festival.
"I love music and know a bit about it," he says. "I found a lot of sheet music of this submerged repertoire in an old bookshop, and I wanted to hear it - but I've never played an instrument. So a friend called Richard Tognetti, who is a brilliant Australian violinist and head of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and I put a show together a few years ago called Weimar Cabaret - and we had to have a girl singer. There was only one voice that occurred to us and that is the incomparable Meow Meow."
She is sitting beside him in a backstage dressing room at the Barbican, a cabaret chanteuse with her own distinctive persona and personality that creates a perfect musical complement and creative foil to Humphries.
"She's the singer and I have my own style," he suggests. "We also dance - or at least she dances and yells out instructions to me which greatly entertains the audience. I like being onstage with this girl because she takes the job seriously, and she does sing wonderfully - I couldn't speak more highly of her, even if I wanted to borrow money from her, which I may."
For Meow Meow, whose theatrical credits range from West End musicals like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to plays at Shakespeare's Globe, the music is everything. "It's a happy coincidence that he loves this music as much as I do. It’s a pretty perverse and intense passion to have locked into this music at a young age. And when I walked into Barry's home, I burst into tears, because he also has original art of the period - a rare and beautiful collection, and I've been obsessed with it all my life."
Some of the songs, in fact, were already in her repertoire - "I'd done a lot of Kurt Weill and some Mischa Spoliansky - and Barry actually knew him, so it's pretty thrilling to have a direct connection to it in this way."
Humphries's own career in London actually began on the musical theatre stage in the early 1960s. "I came here when I was just getting to be a bit known in Australia; I thought that if I got to be too well known, I'd become too comfortable and would never leave. So I came and faced devastating obscurity for about three years, until I got into the original production of Oliver! I remember that when we tried out in Wimbledon the producer Donald Albery told me to keep auditioning for other things, as he was not at all certain about the show. In fact, he ended up as the producer of the most successful British musical up to then."
He originally played the role of Mr. Sowerberry (his featured number was “That's Your Funeral”) and later in the same decade graduated to the role of Fagin - "the Artful Dodger was played by Phil Collins! Now he looks older than I do!" He returned to take over the role in the 90s when it was given a make-over by producer Cameron Mackintosh at the London Palladium: "I don't think I was good in that," he says today, "but I could do it tonight - and play any role, I know the show so well!"
Meow Meow is rapt as he spins these stories, but gently brings the conversation back to the matter in hand. As a performer, she relishes playing with an audience, and teasing them as much as tantalising them with the unexpected. "I always live like this, on or offstage, and what I think is funny is viewed as tragic by the audience and vice versa. And that's the great thing with this period - it goes from quite intense political pieces to totally hilarious, over-the-top sexual stories. The mixture of high and low art is what I respond to and what this allows."
Humphries nods in agreement. "Politics and eroticism are a curious blend - especially set to music." He turns serious: "The looming catastrophe of the rise of the Nazis reflects back in the music. Artists are often prophetic and intuitive - psychic, really - and the art of the 1920s very much prefigures the coming disaster. It's a dance on the edge of a volcano, as one of the popular movies of the time was in fact called."
For Meow Meow, the attraction is the great songs: "you can keep reinterpreting them and finding something new. There are so many resonances - whether of heartbreak or tyranny - that it allows people to find their own beacons to hang onto in dark times."
Both of them hail originally from Melbourne - "which of course is the cultural centre of the world, you may not have known that", says Humphries, with a sly grin. "It’s a city of culture, churches, coffee bars and beautiful housewives." But Europe for both of them was an even bigger cultural conquest: "Australians always have a curiosity about Europe, this mysterious place far away," says Humphries. "It certainly was in my youth - it took a long sea voyage. Now you get there tomorrow, or the day after or the day before, I'm not sure."
They are joined in the show by an augmented chamber orchestra, featuring what Humphries calls "really virtuosic musicians, including Satu Vanska, an extraordinary violinist who is like an attractive Ingrid Bergman."
The cabaret origins of the performance are openly acknowledged. "Cabaret is intimate theatre even in a large space," suggests Meow Meow. "It's an honest way of being in a heightened form."
And that, of course, was long the appeal of Dame Edna and her (sometimes brutal) honesty with the audience, who loved being teased, abused and humiliated by her in equal measure. Edna had an official retirement tour a few years ago, but today Humphries reveals that she may yet be coming back: "She's not a person you can retire. She refuses to retire. She's a vitamin in lots of people's lives - Vitamin E. I think you'll see her next year as a matter of fact."
But first her creator Barry Humphries is being himself at the Barbican - and it promises to be unmissable.
Barry Humphries Weimar Cabaret tickets are available now.