Anthems anew

Robyn Archer: An Australian Songbook (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

June 25 – July 9

Industry pioneer and provocateur Robyn Archer AO is a singer, performer, writer, artistic director and public advocate of the Arts, so to have her wealth of musical knowledge distilled into a fearless celebration of the way song has shaped Australian identity, is a real coup. Lee Lewis’s inspired commission of this political and personal celebration of the way song has shaped Australian identity is to be commended as the result is a captivating curation of our ‘other’ songs, “Robyn Archer: An Australian Songbook”.

As Archer notes from her initial words, “I am not, nor will I ever be Crocodile Dundee”. The first line of her 1988 song, written in response to the bicentennial-prompted clichés of Australian identify is an appropriate introduction to a show that is not as you may expect. From here things progress through what is clearly a cleverly crafted work, intelligent and considered in its weave together of a tapestry of songs infused with personal stories.

Supported by musicians/vocalists George Butrumlis (accordion), Cameron Goodall (guitars and banjo) and Enio Pozzebon (keyboards), who are all given moments to shine, the Adelaide-born artist begins with acknowledgement of the legacies of migrant musicians and first nations peoples’ storytelling. This includes a moving rendition of Dr Lou Bennett’s song ‘Jaara Nyilamum’, a lullaby lament about the birthing trees at the centre of the Jaara family’s close relationship with nature.

“Robyn Archer: An Australian Songbook” is a show for lovers of stories and music alike. Its eclectic range of musical genes includes country, blues, folk, love songs, musical theatre, (almost) rock and even yodelling, so its appeal is wide-ranging, especially to those old enough to know of the Gareth Evans and Cheryl Kernot affair at the centre of one of the night’s high points, a hilarious duet between Pozzebon and Goodall (as Kernot) from “Keating! The Musical”. Goodall’s musicianship is one of the evening’s highlights, especially in his infectious guitar energy in Yothu Yindi’s ‘Macassan Crew’ and his vocal performance on Goanna’s ‘Solid Rock’, which transitions things from first nations songs to a traditional Celtic convict tune.

Mood shifts are seamless throughout. Geoff Squires’ sublime lighting cools us from a focus of sport, into the budget blues of politics, before warming us towards the show’s encore 12-minute musical road trip around the country. While a feminist theme runs throughout as part of the work’s social and political satire, this is without overt agenda. Archer’s take on Julia Gillard’s internationally-famous parliamentary misogyny speech (by Brisbane based composer Rob Davidson) is powerful and her decades-later revisit of Judy Small’s ‘Backyard Abortion Waltz’ comes with an obvious, sad contemporary resonance given recent U.S. events.

This brand new work is one of significance that illustrates how little, as much as how far, we have come. Indeed, its craftsmanship is evident not only in the resonance and relevance of Archer’s songs selections, but in the thoughtful segues between musical numbers and spoken word connections. This is not a concert of mainstream, obvious Aussie anthems; as Archer notes in the work’s program “it was never going to be a predictable list of greatest hits, but rather an alternative list, mainly of songs that audiences might never had been aware of or had forgotten”. The choices are not only considered, but respected through contextual explanation and, with snippets alongside full songs, justice seems to be done to the scope of her momentous brief.

“Robyn Archer: An Australian Songbook” is a nuanced celebration including of its deviser and performer’s virtuosity. Archer is a consummate performer whose versatile voice eases its way across the show’s wide range of musical styles and her clear vocal annunciation means that nothing in lost in its messaging. Music accompaniment also never overpowers her vocals as can so often can be the case, which ensures that every number contributes to what is an unforgettable night of song and appreciation of its ability to preserve the past.

Photos c/o – Brett Boardman