October 2011

Arts & Letters

Queen of the night

By Peter Conrad

Meeting Meow Meow

Allergic as I am to cats, whose fur causes my eyes to water and chokes my air passages, I have to admit a guarded fondness for Meow Meow, the many-talented and polymathic cabaret performer. She is an elusive creature, allegedly Australian – born in Canberra, raised in Melbourne (where she will be appearing next month at the Malthouse Theatre in Little Match Girl) – though she frustrates efforts to fill in her early history and claims to be, like a feline prowler, “of no fixed address”. She declines to answer to Melissa Madden Gray, the name on her birth certificate; when addressing her, you are required to purr. Dogs cling to their kennels or baskets but Meow Meow is at home wherever she can sling her feather boa and find a piano on which to drape as she performs French chansons or Brechtian ballads.

My first meeting with her in March this year was arranged, postponed, then twice rescheduled during the chaotic week before the London opening of a staged version of Jacques Demy’s musical film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, in which Meow Meow – alliteratively renamed ‘Maitresse’ – acted as the mistress of ceremonies. Our last negotiation about time and place occurred by email in the middle of the night. “Insomniacs unite,” I typed at 4 am. Minutes later Meow Meow, like a cyber-hypnotist, commanded, “Sleep!”

Yet when I arrived at noon for our appointment at the Gielgud Theatre, I found she was exercising the diva’s prerogative to be late. I was about to stalk off when she rounded the corner, already in character, camera-ready. A sculpted shock of black hair surmounted her pale face like a helmet or a crown, evoking the battleaxes Boadicea or Elizabeth I who were, she later revealed, her childhood heroines; a slinky black dress wrapped itself round a ballerina’s body that she describes as “still super-flexy”. She might have been costumed to personify Le Chat Noir, the first Parisian cabaret, which opened in Montmartre in 1881 and took its name from a spectral cat that is tortured and killed by a psychopath in a story by Edgar Allan Poe. But her footwear announced that she was Puss in Boots: the heels of her blood-red cowboy clodhoppers made the pavement resound, as if she were a dominatrix clanking across the metal floor of a dungeon.

Behind her she dragged a wheeled suitcase, which made her look like a traveller blearily deplaning after an overnight flight – the proud emblem of her homeless itinerancy, even though the Covent Garden flat where she was billeted during the run of Umbrellas was only, as she put it with a typically witty fillip of phrasing, “a hop, skip and a jeté away”. Somehow, while being kissed as we squeezed through the stage door, I managed to take charge of the suitcase. “Hmm,” meowed Meow, “you submit so easily!” “Pussy-whipped, that’s me,” I replied.

In her dressing room she unpacked the bag, which contained a makeshift breakfast from a nearby patisserie; she had even bought a jar of authentically Gallic jam to spread on the croissants. “I am,” she said as she boiled a kettle, “in – how do you say? – French mode.” Pinned to the wall were murky photocopies of the goddesses who guided her performance in Umbrellas: the existentialist chanteuse Juliette Gréco in a black turtleneck sweater and, beside her, Sarah Bernhardt as the lustful Byzantine empress Theodora in a play by Victorien Sardou, looking – as she glowered through a jewelled veil – like Queen Victoria masquerading as the madam of an exclusive bordello. Then, apologising for the instant coffee, Meow leapt from Paris to Berlin and assumed another of her un-Australian linguistic identities. “Milch?” she asked.

“Black,” I said and, not wanting to be outdone, added: “No zucker either.”

“I like to have total control,” she told me. I already knew it after our meeting had been so often pencilled in and erased; she was referring, however, to her slightly awkward participation in Umbrellas. Her character was an interloper, no part of the original Demy film. “Ah, but the show can’t start till I’m ready,” she smirked. The evening opened with her long, semi-improvised monologue, delivered after she bustled into the auditorium through a side door, smooched audience members in the front row, and ordered them to heave her up onto the stage, with shrill instructions that they were not to look at her bottom while grabbing it.

Because Demy’s dialogue and Michel Legrand’s score couldn’t be altered, the show’s main action unreeled as automatically as a projected film; Meow, ad-libbing from the sidelines and occasionally intruding, brought a reckless live theatricality to the proceedings. As I reminded her, she also threw in a scissor-legged high kick to demonstrate that she was a better dancer than anyone else in the cast and, in a brief parodic routine as the gypsy heroine of Bizet’s Carmen, she measured the difference between the violent intensity of opera and the subdued, anodyne comforts of Demy’s musical. Meow lapped up my creamy compliments, then meekly claimed to be a team player. “I’m a professional, I can’t subvert the piece!” she said. I wasn’t entirely convinced. Imagine, if you can, a wily and intractable cat pretending to be a dog that has taken classes in obedience and learned to walk in a straight line.

“I love the whole Demy trope,” said Meow. In her days as Melissa, she studied structuralist theory at the University of Melbourne, and she can still lapse into academic lingo on demand.

She enjoyed her marginal role in Umbrellas, she explained, “because for once the whole thing doesn’t depend on me. To be hauled around by matelots with pompoms on their hats in a tender little piece about surviving heartbreak – well, that’s a bit of a balm. And I can introduce a gentler version of Meow Meow to a new audience, maybe making some fresh converts among the customers from the suburbs. All the same, I prefer to be in charge of my own performance!”

Meow’s travelling cabaret act maintains steel-willed control while purporting to show the scatty feline undergoing a nervous breakdown. Her shows dangerously or disarmingly break the rules. She tends to miss the cue for her entrance, and usually staggers on in a disoriented daze, fumbling as she tries to locate her spotlight. She recruits volunteers to dress or undress her, usually gay men who are chided for their lack of expertise with bras and corsets. Attempting to sing, she pretends to croak on an exposed note and castigates herself for not warming up backstage. She stokes her faltering energy with two lit cigarettes stuck between the fingers that grip her microphone, and takes frequent swigs from a bottle of red wine planted on the piano, begging drinks from the audience when her own supply runs out. She punishes her body, calling for helpers to twist her limbs into the semblance of a swastika during a protest song from Nazi Germany.

Occasionally she asks how much longer she has to keep going; when the end finally comes – often with an encore of Weill’s ‘Surabaya Johnny’, a woman’s lament for the brute who has abused her – she looks authentically wasted. “I don’t really feel I’ve done a good show,” she told me, “unless I’m bruised, inside and out. And Meow Meow has been known to trigger panic disorder in those who are watching. For some she’s a raped waif, for others she’s a man-hating chick with a whip!”

Her aim is “to physically grab people – not necessarily to touch them, but that too”. Hence her habit of audience-surfing, as she persuades her customers to lift her prone body above their heads and pass her from one end of the theatre to the other while she continues to sing (and to screech complaints about impertinent hands). It’s a stunt but, since Meow is a theoretician as well as a performer, there is an ethical scruple behind it. “When I started, I was amazed by how many people took their phones out and illegally filmed me while I was being lifted towards them screaming, ‘Mind out, I’m not a television!’ This is my way of telling them they can’t just stand back and be voyeurs. I’m saying: ‘Take responsibility, my safety depends on you.’ So far, touch wood, I haven’t come to grief. But everything in theatre depends on the possibility of failure. I have to feel I’m on a precipice.”

As a reference point for performance as an experiment in self-destruction, she directed me to a YouTube video of Nina Simone singing ‘Feelings’ at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976. It lasts for ten agonised minutes, as Simone mumbles, clears her throat, begs for applause, distractedly pounds the piano, then asks herself out loud what she is doing. “We know now that she was bipolar, and you can watch her falling apart. It’s not that I like to see a performer being violated for my viewing pleasure, but there is always a certain frailty in genius, and that’s what’s so piercing here. I want that kind of human truth all the time. I can’t be bothered with anything less than ecstasy.” It is a taxing and perilous manifesto: appropriately enough, ‘meow meow’ is also the street name of a designer drug, technically known as mephedrone.

When Umbrellas closed, Meow slunk off to appear at a music festival in Greenwich, Connecticut. Her American gig was another exercise in strung-out solipsism: Jean Cocteau’s Le Bel Indifférent, a monodrama written in 1940 for Edith Piaf. In it a woman spends half an hour haranguing an unresponsive boyfriend who is about to walk out on her. “It’s a rant – so fast, so desperately realistic, and very distressing. Piaf first did it with her own lover, so it was almost the beginning of reality TV. The director told me ‘Do some of your funny things’ to lighten it, but by the end people were crying. Somehow I felt it was very personal. It’s about a woman with a degree in fame who still has to deal with personal crises. I mean, how does one juggle external fabulousness with, well, something a little more fragile behind the mask?”

When we spoke, Little Match Girl was still, as they say, ‘in development’. The Hans Christian Andersen story suggests a fable about the winter solstice: the match-selling waif, who is killed by the cold but enters into glory on New Year’s Day, represents the expiring sun, which will be reborn (as depressed Scandinavians hope) in the spring.

Meow giggled at the oddity of taking the tale to the Southern Hemisphere, where the sun in November will be in robust health. “Ah yes, that’s ironic in the best postmodern way! In fact it began as a proposal for a Christmas show to be staged in New York, but I like the idea of bringing some darkness to Australia and blocking out all thoughts of the beach. I’m keeping the fairytale elements but my match girl won’t be a victim. I’m not interested in characters like Andersen’s Little Mermaid, who’s just a symbol of female castration. She’ll have the female ache, but she’ll be powerful, with all sorts of extreme surreal hallucinations as she dies.”

During a riff on the subject of feminism and celebrity, I seized the opportunity to ask her about Melbourne, the hometown that supplied Nellie Mitchell with her pseudo-Italian stage name. The question provoked a faint hiss and a brief brandishing of claws. “I never speak of that period,” she definitively declared. “That was another woman.” Meow is a creature who has repressed or repudiated her creator Melissa, like Dame Edna Everage dissing Barry Humphries.

Yet, despite her citizenship of the world, Meow is a local product, if only because she is so keen to detach herself from Canberra and Melbourne, those unexotic, undecadent cities. Her wholesale consumption of other cultures is a trait typical of Australians who feel exiled below the equator: studying in Berlin, she simultaneously researched Brechtian cabaret and Japanese Butoh, and during tryouts of Umbrellas in Leicester she spent time in a local library investigating Boadicea’s last battle, which supposedly took place nearby.

Despite her wearily jet-lagged cosmopolitanism, she still regards her freedom to prowl through this wide, small world with a colonial’s naive wonder. During a flurried exchange of emails, I once received an excited message to announce: “Am in Paris on my day off!!” Meow is not blasé about the Channel Tunnel, which has become as banal a conduit as a drainage pipe. I detected the same ingenuous motive in the roll-call of starry names as she listed supporters such as Mikhail Baryshnikov, David Bowie and the late Pina Bausch, or when she undertook a long and breathless conversational aside to point out that her New York pianist happens to be the boyfriend of Liza Minnelli’s ‘dance captain’.

Clive James once said that “Australia’s itinerant literati, like its media entrepreneurs, are world-eaters.” Meow shares this gobbling global hunger. Everyone and everything is connected in her hyperlinked, free-associating head, and her favourite metaphor of tendrils refers to the net or web that attaches her to present-day collaborators and idols from the past. Her insistence on her self-invented status can be tiresome, since it places the rest of us – we who bumble about just being our unspectacular selves rather than giving a performance – at a disadvantage. Even so, she is rightly proud of how far she has travelled to become a queen of the European and American night. As if in one of her mosh pits, I’m pleased to help hold the squealing cat-woman aloft.

Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad’s most recent book is How the World Was Won. His Myths of the Day, based on a BBC radio series, will be published in 2016.

The incendiary Meow Meow, 2011. © Magnus Hastings
Cover: October 2011
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