Theatre

Both riotously funny and achingly true, Apocalypse Meow: Crisis Is Born confirms Meow Meow as one of the world’s finest cabaret artists. By Alison Croggon.

Apocalypse Meow: Crisis Is Born

Meow Meow performs in Apocalypse Meow: Crisis Is Born in Melbourne.
Credit: Pia Johnson

There was a point about midway through Apocalypse Meow: Crisis Is Born when I realised, almost with a jolt, how lucky I was to be there. How lucky I am to be alive at this time to watch Meow Meow – “a showgirl”, as she tells us many times, “of gargantuan proportions” – at the height of her powers, performing her bittersweet enchantments live on stage.

Meow Meow, the alter ego of performer Melissa Madden Gray, is one of the superlative cabaret stars of our era, the 21st-century equivalent of a Marlene Dietrich or Josephine Baker. No correspondence will be entered into. But here I’m only agreeing with David Bowie, Pina Bausch, Mikhail Baryshnikov and countless artistic directors of major venues around the world, who have all curated her solo shows.

She’s irresistible. The response of the elderly gentleman sitting next to me was a case in point: he had the slightly aggrieved air of a man who had been dragged to the theatre against his will by his wife. At first niggardly with his applause, he was roused to real enthusiasm as the show continued. Finally he began to exclaim after every song, “She’s very good.” Which was, frankly, a bit annoying, but at least had the virtue of being true.

Meow Meow is very good indeed. And Apocalypse Meow: Crisis Is Born, which is maybe my favourite so far of her several spectacles, showcases admirably all the things she’s good at. Originally commissioned by London’s Southbank Centre, it’s arrived (a month early, as our diva sardonically observes) to be the Malthouse Theatre’s Christmas show.

Andrea Lauer’s design gives some pointers to what kind of Christmas show this will be – not quite your usual glitter. The space is dressed as a building site, with hazard tape, a ladder in a corner and seemingly random objects strewn about the set. Divided by a black, ragged curtain, the cavernous stage of the Merlyn Theatre is narrowed to a frontage. A television plays a melancholy video of a crackling fire. The band (Mark Jones, Dan Witton and musical director Jethro Woodward) sit to the left, and to the right are some battered double doors.

Meow Meow enters, as is her wont, from amid the audience, draped in a stunning vintage dress of gold lamé, with an impressive fake pregnant belly and a halo. She’s clutching a blow-up donkey, has two cigarettes clutched between her fingers and is full of complaint. There’s no room at the inn.

It seems the Sydney Opera House has been fully booked since 2010, the Melbourne Recital Centre’s salon has no space for her, and now she’s forced to improvise in a former theatre that’s being turned into apartments by a developer. “It’s not so much a stage as a shelf,” she says, looking disdainfully around at the chaos. “Never mind, never mind, I’ll just do everything myself…”

Apocalypse Meow draws from all the familiar tropes of Christmas variety shows: the celebrity guest singers, the surprise appearance of Father Christmas (ominously, in a storming version of Nick Cave’s ballad “Red Right Hand”), the Christmas lights and invocations of childhood and innocence. Meow Meow reminds us of darker truths: that Christmas is a time of peak domestic violence, when family tensions can escalate and explode. For many people, it’s a time of extreme loneliness.

All this is worked through the brittle-tough persona of Meow Meow, a reconstruction of the cliché of the tempestuous diva fallen on hard times. She is a consummate tease, singing a verse of a song – I think we get a single line of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees”, one of her standards – and then breaking off into a divagation about something else. Almost the entire show is about what doesn’t happen. But in the end we still get the music: songs from Brecht, Weill, Sufjan Stevens, Patty Griffin, Nick Cave, Rodgers and Hammerstein, as well as originals by Meow Meow and her various collaborators.

What holds all this chaos together is that glorious cabaret voice with its seductively smoky purity, and the supremely assured skill of Meow Meow’s presence, which means she’s riveting when she’s simply dragging a prop across the stage. Plus she’s hilarious, even – or maybe especially – when she’s stealing coats and expensive handbags from her audience. It’s always a little perilous being near Meow Meow: nobody is safe.

She tells us, almost tearfully, about the camaraderie of show business. Her very dear friends Alan Cumming, Jake Shears and Rufus Wainwright will be popping along to help her out. This is what performers do, she says, they stick together. My goodness, is that the doorbell? She rushes to the double doors and flings them open. Outside is an apocalyptic red glow and, it seems, a snowstorm. “Children!” she cries in horror, reeling back from a flurry of snow. “Half-people!”

Of course, none of her dear friends turn up. They all leave voice messages regretfully sending their excuses – one missed his plane, another is too busy accepting awards – the joke being, of course, that the voices on the messages are real, and that she has in fact collaborated with all three performers.

Finally she drags in the children – two young girls dressed as Victorian orphans, played on different nights by Annie Jones, Dusty Bursill, Charlotte Barnard and Riya Mandrawa – and dumps them in front of the empty microphones. “Sing!” she shrieks. So they do: a beautiful rendition of the Christmas carol “In the Bleak Midwinter”, based on a poem by Christina Rossetti.

This show is haunted by childhood; the children on stage prompt vagrant memories of Meow Meow’s own childhood and, in one of the most moving moments, her childlessness. Directed by Michael Kantor, who directed her previous shows Vamp and Little Mermaid, Apocalypse Meow has a beautifully modulated dramaturgy, moving seamlessly through its essential anarchy to moments of emotional catharsis and theatrical magic that, in lesser hands, could be shoddily sentimental.

There’s a seam of pain that underlies the whole, and this brings all the show’s nonsense, playfulness and – yes – beauty into the real. Meow Meow is, par excellence, the muse of catastrophe: she is, after all, the contemporary inheritor of the Weimar Kabarett, and – as anyone who’s seen her sing them will know – one of the foremost contemporary interpreters of Brecht’s and Weill’s songs. Her practice, which creates the show before our eyes, its fictions transparently concocted and dismantled from one moment to the next, is deeply Brechtian. She quotes Brecht’s famous lines:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.

No one sings the dark times better than Meow Meow. She doesn’t patronise us by offering us anaesthesia; what she gives us is release, the recognition of our common pain. She does this through absurdity and anarchy, laughing away our defences so that when she reaches her moments of truthfulness, they go through us like knives.

Part of the profundity of her shows is how she embodies historical continuity. I thought afterwards of Walter Benjamin’s passage on the Angel of History, one of the defining images of the 20th century, which he wrote in Paris in 1940 after he had fled the Nazis:

“His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet … a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.”

That “one single catastrophe” has never dissipated, and now its wreckage is piling higher into the chaos of the 21st century. This decade of corporate psychopathy, authoritarian dictators, war and environmental devastation isn’t a new crisis but the same old disaster. It’s surely a bad sign that Meow Meow chimes so exactly with the zeitgeist: it seems to me that over the past decade, her work has cut closer and closer to the marrow of our time. But in all this darkness, she is one of the lights.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 30, 2019 as "How great Meow art". Subscribe here.

Alison Croggon
is an award-winning novelist, poet, playwright and critic.