The Performers Set To Glam Up Brisbane's MELT: Festival Of Queer Arts & Culture

26 June 2019 | 9:05 am | Maxim Boon

Performers Dolly Diamond and Reuben Kaye, and Daniel Gough, director of 'La Silhouette', talk to Maxim Boon about keeping cabaret subversive.

Since the emergence of modern cabaret as an art form, birthed in the smoky salons of 1880s Paris, it’s been the medium of choice for the open-minded. A place where poets, performers and radical thinkers could find kindred spirits, cabaret clubs offered a spotlight for forms of expression that broke new ground and pushed boundaries, both creatively and culturally. Free of the stuffy heritage and rigid elitism of theatre, opera and ballet, cabaret was not only a more accessible form of entertainment, it was unpredictable, unexpected, and totally of the moment. But more than this, cabaret celebrated otherness, so it’s little wonder that it has been a mainstay for queer artists for more than a century.

Today, it clearly continues to hold that magnetism for queer performers; cabaret features heavily on the program of this year’s MELT: Festival Of Queer Arts And Culture. One of the fest’s biggest headliners is revered cabaret legend and drag star Dolly Diamond. The alter-ego of British-born comedian Michael Dalton, Diamond first sauntered onto stage 18 years ago, and has been a fixture on Australia’s cabaret circuit since 2009. In 2017, she was appointed the Artistic Director of the Melbourne Cabaret Festival.

She says it’s the spontaneity of cabaret that makes it such a perfect fit for drag artists. “You know, I’ve done musicals and other stage shows over the years, and Ioved them of course, but you have to deliver the same performance night after night. And I think that’s a bit like working in a bank, I just find it way too boring,” she explains. “But I think the most important thing about cabaret for me is that you get to break down that fourth wall, because I really rely on an audience to give back as much as I’m giving them.”

At the heart of her performances is a classic variety of high camp comedy. It’s a style of outrageous clowning that is perfect for audience interaction, she says. “I love that element of the unknown, you know, because at my shows I often have no idea what the audience are going to do, or even what I’m going to do. I love improvising, and I just think cabaret allows for that in such an exciting way.”

The direct connection it can make to its audience, and the blurred division between the stage and audience, makes cabaret uniquely intimate. In some cases, as with Diamond, this allows for a more whipsmart comic dynamic. But for other artists it offers more sensuous opportunities. Reuben Kaye is a performer for whom hedonism is the principal tool of his trade. The master raconteur’s stage persona is a mix of scandalising glamour and devil-may-care inhibition.

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“What you see on stage is definitely still me, but a heightened version of me – three or four martinis in, right in the middle of a fantastic story. But likewise, it’s still incredibly real and incredibly raw because it can be. That’s what this type of performance gives you,” he says. “For me, cabaret is commentary on and reaction to the world through a queer lens. And by ‘queer’ I don’t necessarily mean particularly gay, per se, but twisting something, adjusting it, rearranging it to give a new perspective.”

In the past, artists like Kaye, while certainly heralded within their own communities, nonetheless subverted the cultural status quo, and were often disregarded as fringe performers. In recent years, queer culture has become more recognised and mainstreamed, which has seen a “radical shift” in the status of queer artists. “It’s an amazing moment in history that what I do is recognised around the world. I’m in a very privileged position that simply would not have been possible, even ten years ago,” Kaye says. “But that doesn’t mean what I do, and other artists like me do, has lost any of its sting. When I first started, maybe six years ago, I thought this act would end up being completely passé – the transgression of it, the risk of being a man in this job, wearing make-up, talking about sexual liberation, making jokes about masculinity – I thought it would become really bland. But six years on, there’s still risk in it. There’s still something exciting that people want to see, so as along as that’s the case, I’ll keep going, I’ll keep putting the slap on.”

Cabaret may be a perfect vehicle for artistic trailblazers, but it also represents a chronicle of queer history. Brisbane’s SUI Ensemble are channelling both these qualities for their latest show, La Silhouette. Via an immersive experience that invites the audience to inhabit the world of the performers, this experimental production charts Brisbane’s LGBTQIA+ heritage.

The show’s director, Daniel Gough, chose a cabaret club as La Silhouette’s setting. “The interesting thing about cabaret, is that it allows you to tell a lot of short stories, and tell them in a number of ways. And I think that’s pertinent to queer culture and the queer psyche because queer people have a lot of parts to themselves – social personas, private personas, sometimes drag personas or gender personas. So cabaret is a perfect reflection of that,” he says. “There are those historical and academic reasons about why queer culture chimes so well with cabaret, but ultimately for this project, it just felt right – as theatre makers we landed in the cabaret environment very quickly.”

But exploring queer history is inevitably a story of persecution and prejudice, and these bleaker qualities may perhaps seem at odds with the thrill and comedy of cabaret. Gough insists the darker parts of Brisbane’s queer past aren’t something to shy away from. “We are talking about a culture in a society that had to happen outside the public eye, which is, by the way, the same place where a lot of crime happened, where a lot of corruption happened. So queer spaces and those kinds of illicit criminal spaces were often shared. But queer communities fight and enter into battle through celebration, using parties and costumes and singing and dancing and movement to fight back. It’s how we express pride. So there is a darkness to parts of this story, but it’s also a story about people who want to express themselves, and the best way to fight against a society that doesn’t want that is to do it anyway.”