When considering cabaret acts, the names of composer Benjamin Britten and poet WH Auden don't immediately spring to mind. Yet the most revered British composer of the twentieth century and the equally iconic Auden briefly dabbled with the form after early collaborations on the films, Coal Face and Night Train, and the radically inclined song cycle, Our Hunting Fathers. Tell me The Truth About Love is a new show in which playwright Mark Ravenhill and composer Conor Mitchell bring together the four songs the pair wrote alongside new treatments for another four sets of lyrics by Auden, for which Britten's music is presumed to be lost or incomplete. As a flame-carrying bonus, Mitchell has also composed brand new settings to a quartet lyrics penned by Ravenhill. These will be performed by Jamie McDermott of flamboyant ten-piece chamber-pop ensemble, The Irrepressibles.
“I'm a complete Britten geek,” Mitchell says of his interest in the composer, whose centenary was recently celebrated at the Aldeburgh Festival, which was founded by Britten. “I knew there was this set of existing cabaret songs, but they've always been hard to perform, because there's only four, then there were these other four which I did the music four, and then Mark came up with these new lyrics, which made for a complete hour.”
As Ravenhill explains, “Auden and Britten were inspired by cabaret songs from America and Germany, and I think they initially set out to write these things for fun, and as a sideline to what they saw as more serious work. Auden wrote a play with Christopher Isherwood, The Ascent of D6, which Britten was also writing the music for. They all thought that this was a more serious thing, but which is pretty much unstageable.”
While Ravenhill's early career was defined by his 1996 play, Shopping and Fucking, the last few years has seen him look to other theatrical forms to make hybrid works, often with music. The last music theatre collaboration between Mitchell and Ravenhill was Ten Plagues, an intense song cycle performed by Marc Almond at the Traverse Theatre during the 2011 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. This followed Shadow Time, commissioned for the twenty-first anniversary of the London Gay Men's Chorus. While the sensibilities of all these have trickled down into Tell Me the Truth About Love, particularly in terms of the homosexuality of both Auden and Britten, both Ravenhill and Mitchell are keen to stress the differences as well.
“There's less of a narrative than in Ten Plagues,” Ravenhill points out, while Mitchell observes that “Cabaret songs have to be immediate, to get the lyrics through. With something like Ten Plagues, you can play with things, and one word can have twelve notes to it, bit you can't do that with cabaret songs.”
For Mitchell, who has recently worked at Perth Theatre with long-term collaborator and the theatre's artistic director, Rachel O'Riordan, following in Britten's shoes might have been more daunting if he hasn't observed this maxim of keeping things simple.
“I composed it twice,” he says. “I always start something and think, I'm going to show them, but the first time was too complex, so I went back and listened to what Britten did. I learnt a lot, because he just went for cabaret tunes.”
While Auden and Britten remained classy even as they were attempting to be trashy, The Truth About love is just the latest example of a reinvention of cabaret over the last few years which hasn't been since the 1980s so-called alternative scene. This was recognised in 2012 when cabaret was given its own section in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme, while both Camille O'Sullivan and the Tiger Lillies have performed in the Edinburgh International Festival.
While such formal recognition is significant, the irresistible rise of cabaret gas also been sired by the recession.
“Cabaret is cheaper to do than a full play,” Ravenhill observes, “and a lot of it has come out of what's happening in pubs and clubs as a way of entertaining people with something that's not quite comedy and isn't quite theatre. For a while I think people associated cabaret with what happens on cruise ships, but it does seem to be back in a more interesting way now.”
Mitchell goes further, pointing out how “the institutions of music are starting to lose their rigid definitions. These days you van have pop singers singing classical works, and classically trained singers singing pop songs , so these old barriers are starting to melt.”
Mitchell and Ravenhill plan to collaborate further on projects great and small. With Marc Almond still performing Ten Plagues, the pair are also looking to working with him again.
“Ultimately I'd like to try and find the resources to stage a big opera,” Ravenhill says, “but we just have to find something that excites us all, and that we can get our teeth into.”
Tell Me The Truth About Love, Underbelly, Edinburgh, July 31st-August 26th, 7pm-8pm
The Herald, July 23rd, 2013