Farewelling a femme fatale

Songs for the Fallen (Critical Stages)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

December 10 – 13

“Songs for the Fallen” tells the cabaret tale of the short life of darling Parisian courtesan Marie Duplessis, so is perhaps appropriately disturbing, poignant and hilarious… and never boring. The story starts on Marie’s 23rd birthday. There are no guests yet; they know she needs her rest. As a carnival parades outside, all she wants is champagne and a microphone to make her own (last) party complete (she will die of tuberculosis 18 days later).

champagne

What follows is a partly factual, partly fictitious speculation of Mademoiselle Marie’s extraordinary life. It’s a story audiences probably know well enough already given its portrayal in popular culture through Greta Garbo’s “Camille” and Verdi’s “La Traviata” and even Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge”. And as Marie, Writer/Performer Sheridan Harbridge, makes reference to them all in the tongue-in-cheek take on the how she underwent Pygmalion-esque transformation from poverty to infamy to become unlike all the other little Maries in the world, having affairs with lots of men who gave her lots of money to spend quickly and carelessly. Through flashback and like narrative devices she reflects on her search for life’s great lesson before concluding that the greatest things you will ever learn are all about hot chips and Tupperware.

Despite its French setting and tone, there are a number of surprise Aussie moments of “Kath and Kim” type cringe, thanks to a clever script that is full of witty lines within dialogue and song alike. Indeed, the show is irreverent in every sense of the word. And it works because, not in spite, of it, thanks to Harbridge’s vibrant performance as the charismatic courtesan, filling the theatre with feisty humour, feminine humanity and impressive vocals.

singing

Complementing this, Simon Corfield and Ashley Hawkes add charm to the darkness of her Marie’s last days and longings. As Duplessis’ many lovers, as well as her loyal but impatient chamber maid, Corfield covers all range of emotions, making each of his characters distinct, despite the show’s sometimes frantic pace. Hawkes, meanwhile, is hilarious, especially as narrator and mock-translator, showing an engaging flair for comedy thanks to some spot-on-timing.

Just as Duplessis captured the imagination of Paris and the hearts of her many lovers, “Songs for the Fallen” will stay with audiences for many reasons. The set is majestic, using lavish décor to create a lush aesthetic that floats between boudoir and burlesque stage, as the story is recalled, enacted and sung, as part of its live pop-styled score. And the courtesan’s gorgeous costumes are like-wise sumptuous in their layers of ruffles and lace.

“Songs for the Fallen” is difficult to describe but exquisite to experience as audiences get to party like its 1847. Despite the story’s depressing historical outcome, it is a bold piece and its energy never wanes, making it the ultimate delicious, decadent and often debaucherous birthday party farewell to the fallen femme fatale.

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