Review by Matthew Hocter
Growing up with European Grandparents that were not only from different parts of Europe themselves, but also both multi lingual, meant that diversity was a mainstay in our household whether we liked it or not. From these differences, ‘diversity’ as we now refer to it, came with an incredible amount of music, food and of course conversation.
Both of my grandparents adored classical music and had an intense, almost manic appreciation for the great composers, but given that my Oma (Grandmother) hailed from Dresden in Eastern Germany, Cabaret was for her, a guilty, maybe even slightly naughty pleasure. Not that she thought there was anything wrong with it, but as we know, the history of Europe and the World Wars succumbed to the arts and those that indulged in Cabaret at the time were usually frowned upon. The artists, the dwellers of the night and even the debauched were said to have frequented and contributed too much of Cabaret in 1930s Germany, all things that the ruling party of time despised and then shamelessly disposed of.
One Cabaret artist of the time that both my Grandparents liked, but was also the topic of many debates and subsequent disagreements, was the French singer and actress, Juliette Gréco. Whilst I was not overly familiar with her life and legacy, I most definitely was familiar with her old records being played and sung to by my Oma and Opa. A topical woman and performer of her time, to discover that a show on her musical and personal legacy was being shown at The Adelaide Cabaret Festival meant just one thing: attend.
It was just a few months prior to this show, that I had met its creator, Louise Blackwell. Introduced via a mutual friend, Blackwell’s humble approach to the compliments being thrown around about her singing and acting qualities, immediately drew me in to her. Charismatic, kind and interesting, it came as no surprise to me when there was talk of a possible show that combined the Francophile’s love of French music and of course one of it’s finest purveyors, chanteuse Juliette Gréco.
Now, what I am not going to do is pretend that I knew and understood every song performed. I didn’t. But that is what made this show so special, the ability to transfer music, in all its varied languages, into something that everyone could appreciate, even when not in the common tongue. Blackwell’s commitment to Gréco and her story, interspersed with the music that defined her career, was nothing short of majestic. As she wove in and out of character, it was clear from the very first word that Blackwell is a storyteller with an effortless grace and elegance that cannot be taught or bought, it is simply is.
The tone of Blackwell’s voice is another defining moment of this production. It’s clarity and crispness work deliciously with the French language and her reinterpretation of the music brings new meaning to just what that is. To not slip up for 80 minutes on stage, in what can really be described as an almost solo show, is a feat within itself. Add in the fact that Blackwell moved in and out of character, language and accents in a way that I imagine greats like Cate Blanchett and Meryl Streep master, which gave way to the realization that this was so much more than a one night affair at a Cabaret Festival. This was and is, art and storytelling personified.
Central to this piece of musical theatre were the historical aspects of Gréco’s life. The story relayed was neither boring or pompous, instead central to Gréco’s life, her relationships, both familial and personal, as well as the effects these had on the world at large. The stage reflected this by way of a minimalist approach ensuring that the focus was never taken off Blackwell and her six piece band.
There were moments of post war joy at the club Le Tabou and all its colorful characters. Racism was delved into and examined by way of Gréco’s relationships, a forty plus year love affair with the legendary Mile Davis, as well as dating music producer Quincy Jones. Like every story though, there is light and darkness, and Gréco’s life was full of darker moments that inadvertently shaped her.
Self-examination on what it meant to be French and the great divide of Paris’s Left and Right banks, how the war shaped her (she was sent to a women’s prison at 15 years of age in Fresnes) and the working relationship with Serge Gainsbourg, one of Frances most important figures in French Pop, who also happened to be Jewish and avoid the atrocities of the holocaust. All of these factors played their part in this beautiful story, a story that saw Gréco being given the very apt nickname “The Existentialist Singer,” even if she never quite understood how and why she was afforded the title.
Blackwell’s first foray into the Adelaide Cabaret Festival was a masterclass in how true storytelling is done and that the fanfare that accompanied so many other productions, is redundant on a show like this as the quality of what is being delivered truly speaks for itself. An artist dressed in a floor length black dress, coupled with a Gréco-esque black wig, a small Parisian table to the left of the stage with two chairs and 6 musicians in the background gently moving in and out of the dim lighting, and hindsight reminds me that this was always about the story and not the actor.
Words, for all their power, complexity and emotion, have a sensual beauty, something that Blackwell not only understood, but articulated and ultimately conquered with Love on the Left Bank.