Barry Humphries: dancing on a volcano

NICK CATER

Originally published in review in The Weekend Australian April 06, 2013

 

2013-04-20 10.08.05 am

 

FROM the waist up, Barry Humphries is settling in comfortably to his advancing years in a respectable blazer, well-pressed shirt and fedora.

From the waist down, he is making a statement and he is making it loudly enough to be spotted at 50 paces on a busy afternoon at Sydney’s Circular Quay. If there is a clause in the dress code that says a gentleman should not be seen in pink cotton trousers and multicoloured socks, Humphries is prepared to flout it.

“I think one ought to,” says Humphries, clearly delighted that the subject has been raised. “It’s a good colour isn’t it? I think I got them in America in a shop called J.Crew. Chinos, they’re called.”

Humphries has been softening us up to the notion of his retirement for more than 30 years. The sign of awareness of his own mortality came when he was 44 with the show It’s Pathetic at His Age. His latest as Dame Edna, Eat, Pray, Laugh, was billed as a farewell tour, but such is Humphries’s longevity that it hardly seems possible.

He has been performing in Australian theatres for more than a quarter of the nation’s settled history: it is almost 60 years since his work came to the attention of the Australian mainstream press. On August 31, 1953, tucked on page 15 of The Advertiser, the Melbourne University Dramatic Club’s presentation of Emlyn Williams’s The Wind of Heaven at the Tivoli Theatre gets a short but honourable mention. Robert Menzies had not yet celebrated his fourth year as post-war prime minister, Geoffrey Blainey was still writing his first book and the new Holden FJ sedan had just gone on sale for less than £1000. “Barry Humphries (Evan Howell) added an authentic touch to the Welsh village atmosphere,” The Advertiser’s unnamed critic writes.

“It’s certainly a long career,” Humphries tells Review in a recent interview. “You look over your shoulder and realise you’ve come some distance, or perhaps you’ve been treading water for some time.”

At 79, his international touring days are over. “I just can’t keep it up. And I’ve got a lot of other things that I want to do. But I certainly won’t stop [performing] and I will be appearing in my various characters and things.” In fact, he tells Review, Dame Edna has agreed to make a reappearance with the Sydney Symphony now that Vladimir Ashkenazy has knocked off the band’s rough edges.

Humphries himself has found a transgressive soul mate in Richard Tognetti, leader of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, with whom he will appear later this month, together with cabaret diva Meow Meow, in a national tour presenting the music of Germany’s Weimar Republic (1919-33). For the man best known as a comedian, satirist and global entertainer, it’s an opportunity to share his lifelong fascination with Berlin culture between the wars.

“I anticipate a big popular response to this concert,” he says. “I think that this music still has to come into its own.”

The timing is good. The Mad Square, an exhibition of modernity in German art from 1910 to 1937, staged by the Art Gallery of NSW in 2011 and later moving to Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria, whetted the appetite for the creative flourish that emerged in Berlin and Cologne after World War I and ended brutally at the start of Hitler’s Third Reich. There is more to be gleaned from this period than the musical Cabaret allows: the penetrating, decadent imagery of the Weimar years, its nervous approach to modernity and the disempowerment of the human form were understandable responses to the first industrial-scale war. It still resonates with the times, its visceral awareness of horror feeding the contemporary hunger for catastrophe.

The new show is also an opportunity to get our heads around the art of Humphries who, after more than a half century in the public eye, countless interviews and a small library of books by or about him, remains nervous about exposing his soul in public and, who knows, perhaps in private. A supreme extrovert but frustratingly opaque, he has the confidence to wear whatever damn trousers he chooses, or a dress and tiara if he wants to but, as Peter Coleman warns in his book The Real Barry Humphries, he is a frustrating, if entertaining, interlocutor, viewing an encounter with a journalist as another “episode in an unending contest”, the aim being to obfuscate more than shed light on his character.

The Weimar connection is, then, as good an insight as we are likely to get into Humphries’s formative influences, information that he has chosen until now to withhold. Coleman, writing in 1990, described his childhood as “gothic”, which comes close but fails to capture the mind of a child growing up in the suburbia of white Australia convinced he was really middle European.

If time travel allowed, Humphries could slip into a Berlin nightclub of the Weimar period without raising an eyebrow. Researching this piece, I recalled a watercolour by Rudolf Schlichter from The Mad Square exhibition depicting two topless forms, one a transvestite, dancing on a crude stage to the music of a jazz trio. Seated at the table, carefully observing the scene is a figure spooky in its resemblance to Humphries.

Schlichter’s painting dates back to 1920. Humphries was born 14 years later in Camberwell, Victoria, and attended Melbourne Grammar School where he developed an early interest in the music of the Weimar period. He would read about the composers in the school library and thus “knew rather precociously” about the experimental music inflected by dadaism.

For a teenage Humphries, Weimar culture offered respite from the post-war monotony of middle-class Melbourne and a welcome opportunity to cock a snook at the “cake-eating bourgeoisie”. He recalls a holiday with his parents in a spa town (probably Daylesford) where he spied “a group of refugees, huddled at one end of a fashionable lounge, very separate and strange” who had become the object of “rather hostile whisperings” from the aforementioned cake eaters.

“I felt – snobbishly – that Australia was a cultural desert,” he says. “I felt frustrated and I vented it in certain characters that I created, that were meant to satirise Australian bigotry, dullness, boringness, hostility to change … Hitler gave Australia two gifts: chocolates and chamber music,” he adds, recalling that some Weimar tunes found their way on to ABC radio’s 3LO, thanks to a European pianist who found work there.

Weimar, then, is the missing link between Humphries’s early experiments in avant-garde performance art and filmmaking as a student in Melbourne and his later grotesque comic creations: Edna Everage, Sir Les Patterson and the absurdly drawn cast of Humphries and Bruce Beresford’s 1972 movie, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie. They all emerge from a cabaret world of exaggeration, deformity and satire, and are infused with Humphries’s levelling Australian wit.

Humphries’s father-in-law, poet Stephen Spender, who lived in Germany during the Weimar era, described it as a period “of perpetual scene shifting”. The connection with the imperial German cultural tradition had been broken with the 1918 abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and a new one had yet to be invented. In Berlin in the 15 years between Germany’s surrender at the end of World War I and the ascension of Adolf Hitler, artists and musicians took it on themselves to rewrite the rules.

Spender, like his friend Christopher Isherwood, found the lack of restraint exhilarating after Britain but was troubled that the movement appeared to be led “by people who seemed naked in body and soul”. He wrote: “It was easy to be advanced. You only had to take off your clothes.”

In the art galleries and on the stage, artists seized temporary control, rejecting the cant of popularity and the constraints of high art. Composers took hold of whatever came their way: jazz rhythms from the US, opera, klezmer (an instrumental musical tradition) from central European secular Judaism, the noise of industry and the baubles of modern life.

“It was a period in many ways of despair, inflation, poverty, extremes,” says Humphries. “But somehow it was an artistically very fertile period when things were not just undergoing change but also in them was the germ too of decay. You knew that somehow it was a dance on the edge of a volcano.

“The puritanical totalitarian backlash against the experimentation and exuberance of the Weimar period was total. They were as devoted to cultural extermination as they were to racial extermination.”

The Nazis labelled it Entartete Kunst – degenerate art. Hitler railed against the “clique of chatterboxes, dilettantes and art swindlers” and sanctioned an exhibition designed to humiliate and expose the artists for their decadent, fraudulent and subversive behaviour. In the true traditions of dadaism, the Entartete “Kunst” (the quotation marks were deliberate) exhibition was evidence that the Weimar artists had succeeded in their sacred duty to shock. The most serious offence for the dadaist is to incite indifference; the objective of art is to disturb, dumbfound and disconcert and the artist’s task is to confound rather than console – one Humphries has succeeded at in his lifetime on the stage. In doing so, he has exposed his mirthless cultural critics as champions of intolerance. Writing in The National Times on October 3, 1982, Craig McGregor, for instance, accused Humphries of “racism and sexism and crypto-fascism”. “Humphries’s own personal politics, I assume, is somewhere to the right of Ronald Reagan,” McGregor wrote, citing Humphries’s place on the board of Quadrant magazine as evidence. “Humphries’s is a profoundly reactionary art,” he continued. “It reminds one of nothing so much as the grotesque and despairing cabaret which flourished in Berlin as the Nazis began their terrible climb to power.”

Humphries replied in his review of a book edited by McGregor: “We share [McGregor’s] sense of awe and wonderment, for the creative gift is a very mysterious, even suspect phenomenon, particularly to those untouched by it.”

Thirty years later, Humphries’s characters may have softened a little, but their creator is still capable of creating a scandal. The irredeemable pretension of Everage’s formative years, preserved in recordings such as Wild Life in Suburbia, evolved into the parody of Dame Edna the housewife superstar and eventually to a rounded, almost endearing character. Humphries confesses to “a little grudging sympathy” for his character’s announcing that: “I myself have become a fogey.”

Not quite, for Humphries has not yet mellowed sufficiently to abandon the pleasure of spreading consternation. “It’s amazing how low people’s threshold still is,” he says. “People are really still extremely shockable, particularly if you violate the puritanical tenets of political correctness, which is the new puritanism, isn’t it?”

In Tognetti, Humphries has discovered an accomplice who is not afraid to overstep the mark. Tognetti flouts the rules of the concert hall just as Humphries breaks theatrical conventions. Both have achieved success in London, partly through the licence granted to the wild colonial boy to disregard etiquette.

“He’s a wonderful man, and he leapt at the idea of this,” says Humphries.

Australian burlesque revivalist singer Meow Meow has the opportunity to demonstrate her vocal range through the music of Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler, Friedrich Hollander, Mischa Spoliansky and Ernst Krenek, whose work Jonny was perhaps the most enduring example of the sub-genre known as Zeitoper, or Now Opera. Jonny succeeded in attracting the ire of the Nazis and the socialists; Eisler, a communist, called it “mushy, petit bourgeois stuff”. But Humphries describes the music celebrated in his concert series with the ACO as “extraordinarily interesting”: “very often rather jazzy, surprisingly modern sounding and accessible above all”.

Cabaret, he adds, serves as useful introduction to Weimar music, but paints a misleadingly opulent picture of the times. “They never really experienced the luxurious extremes depicted on the stage because they just couldn’t afford it.”

Humphries would like to take the ACO concert to Germany and Austria. “I think it would be very popular,” he says. “I’ve done some of my own shows half in German, and it’s fun. I once wrote a song called Edna Uber Deutschland. It was in march tempo, which always goes down well in Germany.”

Two days after our meeting, Humphries, ever meticulous, emails with a correction: “Enjoyed our interview. I thought I should tell you that my pink pants were bought for a few euros at a street market in Saint-Tropez.” My scepticism about the authenticity of last year’s grand finale tour seems justified, however. Humphries adds: “Next time I do a farewell show, I will insist you attend.”

Barry Humphries’s Weimar Cabaret with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, at Sydney’s City Recital Hall, April 23-27, and Sydney Opera House on May 3, and touring to Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.