It’s been an extraordinary 2016 for Meow Meow, the inimitable kamikaze chanteuse who combines a deep knowledge of the cabaret canon with original songs and distinctive cover versions – all generally framed within the frantic balancing act of a consummately constructed faux-shambles of a show.
This year she has performed alongside Barry Humphries in a superb showcase of Weimar songs, taken centre stage at Shakespeare’s Globe to wide acclaim, and cajoled the US ambassador to play the triangle at the Royal Albert Hall. She’s also working on a new version of The Little Mermaid.
This week, she brings Meow Meow’s Pandemonium to the Royal Festival Hall – an evening of ‘(almost) completely orchestrated chaos’ ranging from Brecht & Weill and Jacques Brel to Piazzolla tangos and Radiohead. It’s created with longtime collaborators Ian Grandage, who conducts 88 members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and pianist Thomas M. Lauderdale of Pink Martini, three of whose musicians also join the line-up.
Meow Meow, you’re descending upon the Royal Festival Hall this week for what’s being billed as a night of Pandemonium. What can we expect?
It’s an absolute celebration of many of my favourite hits – but orchestrated for 88 musicians, which is pretty phenomenal. It’s a Meow spectacle intensified! Ian and Thomas have written a lot of the songs with me and there are also songs by Amanda Palmer and Meg Washington. It’s a way to celebrate these relationships that have been important to me. The way Ian has orchestrated a lot of the songs, they’re like shimmering stars. Some of these songs are like little requiems. They have great meaning for me – all lost souls deserve a requiem. And to perform them this way… I’m getting goosebumps thinking about it. It does feel sort of miraculous. Performance is always about being together, breathing together, and of course you can do that with an accompanist or a cappella, but to do it with 88 musicians takes it… beyond. The Festival Hall is pretty massive but it can be an incredibly intimate space. You don’t need to be on someone’s lap for them to feel touched and moved. But you know me, I probably won’t stay on the stage.
You recently played Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare’s Globe – Emma Rice’s first production as artistic director there. How was the experience of performing at the Globe?
In a short time, I loved that building. I walked on stage and I burst into tears and someone said, ‘Darling, you’re home’. Weirdly, it felt incredibly familiar having performed in so many Speigeltents. I’m used to feeling the audience breathe, being able to see them and feel them around you. There’s no fourth wall [in Shakespeare]. There are no soliloquies – they’re all conversations with the audience. Working with Emma Rice, it’s about creating one tremendous ecstatic space with the audience and that’s what I try and do on stage.
What do make of the news that Rice is to leave the Globe after just two years?
I don’t know the internal politics, I can only speak to my blissful time there. I’ve worked with Emma Rice on so many projects and she’s so inspirational that I’m feeling terribly sad for the Globe. Emma is an extremely passionate woman and director who is an absolute joy to be in a rehearsal room with and makes things with absolute heart. She’s got this unbelievable ability in a very non-dictatorial way to bring out the joy and the best in people. That’s what’s astounding about some of the vitriol in the press. Though the fact that Twitter melted is in some way exciting to me – that a radical decision about theatre can spark such massive discussion about censorship and authenticity and auteuring and class. It touches on things that worry all of us at the minute in terms of cultural identity, how that links into the mental and spiritual wellbeing of people, the circus of global politics. It triggers a lot of things about people’s anxiety about control, punishment, accessibility, change, progress. It’s fantastic that, whatever your opinion of it, it’s created this passionate examination of the role of art and the great playwright Shakespeare!
You’ve worked again this year with Barry Humphries, whose knowledge of Weimar cabaret is enduring and encyclopaedic. In that show, he describes how an old suitcase of sheet music was his portal to the world of Weimar. How did it come into your life?
I always loved the tango. I remember hearing a night of tangos and some of them stuck with me. I spoke to the singer after the show and they were by Kurt Weill. She gave me some albums so I sought out a record player. I was thrilled by the combination of seductive and dissonant music with such fantastical and political writing, and faraway impossible places, and so much about the fate of women, how they are used as a site of capitalist destruction. It feels somehow foreign but right – the phonic, political, moral and ethical complexity of that period that’s reflected in this pulsating experimentation in art, between super political songs and songs that are about sounds. It’s pretty amazing. I did [Brecht and Weill’s] The Seven Deadly Sins last year [in Melbourne] and when you hear the parts pulled apart, just the strings, every tendril gives me goosebumps. I can’t explain how profound it is in my body. Barry’s a magnificent person. He reminds you to pursue passions some people may see as obscure because you meet people on the way. I couldn’t believe that I’d found my soul mate in someone I’d always adored. Barry and I first did the Weimar concerts three years ago across Australia. It felt profound and magical at the time but now it feels more apocalyptic and disgustingly relevant to be standing on stage with Barry, holding his hand and singing about this migratory world where we block people together as refugees and forget their individual stories.
How concerned are you about the resonances between the Weimar era and today’s society, particularly the divisions around Brexit and Trump and the othering of immigrants and refugees?
It’s extraordinary how much bile has been revealed. Rather than finding autonomy in art, a lot of people are finding community in bullying and fear. The veneer of civility was just exploded and there’s a rampant license to be divisive and hateful. The amount of vitriol that’s just beneath the surface that just feels like misguided fear… The press are stirring and applauding this disconnect, cultivating bullying and fear. It’s not reporting, it’s warmongering. I wonder whether they could be sued for manslaughter. The social responsibility of care seems to be forgotten. I find it terrifying.
Meow Meow’s Pandemonium is at the Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday November 1 2016. More details here.