Saturday, 31 August 2013

2013: Bijou – A Cabaret of Secrets and Seduction by Chrissie Shaw

Chrissie Shaw as Bijou
Bijou – A Cabaret of Secrets and Seduction by Chrissie Shaw.  SmallShows in association with The Street Theatre Made in Canberra, performed by Chrissie Shaw and Alan Hicks (piano), directed by Susan Pilbeam.  At Street Two, Thursday 29th August - Saturday 7th September, 7.30pm; Sunday 1st and 8th September, 4pm, 2013.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

The artist Gyula Halász, originally from the ancient Transylvanian town of Brassó,  became the photographer of Paris nightlife where he was known as Brassaï.  In 1933 he published a book including this photo of “Bijou” of the Montmartre cabarets, apparently without ever speaking to the woman.

"Bijou" - photo by Brassaï, Nuits de Paris 1933

Four years of research and writing has produced a life and times of Bijou – fictional, but entirely possible.  Beginning from lines from Fleurs du Mal by Baudelaire, which include Elle n’avait gardé que ses bijoux sonores, and entwining into a kind of internal monologue – spoken, mimed and sung by the anonymous “Bijou” – an enormous range of French and German music, Shaw has created perhaps the most significant work of her long stage career in Canberra.

"Bijou" - photo by Brassaï, Nuits de Paris 1933

 Her story begins as she refuses to acknowledge the Brassaï closeup hung on the side wall of our cabaret setting.  He knew nothing of the real person he so rudely photographed.  She blinds him with her hat and recalls the joys and terrors of her life.  The measure of her character was coming across one of the girls she had known at convent school – like her, sexually used and abused by a leading figure in the Church – as an adult: poverty stricken, demoralised and literally looking like death.  Bijou would survive: indeed she would use the men who would use her, and succeed in bringing down the archbishop via a secret tunnel by which he visits her brothel.  He does not recognise her from when she was his 12-year-old sex-object, literally; but one of her “girls” recognises him in all his regalia during Mass, and screams out the truth.

The son born of her illegitimate liaison is brought up by Bijou’s parents, believing Bijou to be his elder sister.  But the play – which this is, rather than the merely entertaining cabaret it first appears to be – is not only about the appalling treatment of women, family shame, and the strength of character needed by a woman to rise above the indignity and even threats to her life, such as when her German nobleman officer “husband” sends her home to Paris after World War I when “he could have killed me” because she knew too much of his affairs.

The awful twist to her story is that her secret son dies in that very war, and we are faced not only with how a mother must carry on despite such a loss, but also with the realisation that this war – the “Great War” to “End all Wars” was a lie, as all wars are.  And we know, as she was photographed in 1933, how true her recognition of this would be.  And still is.

Though for me the first half was played rather too “studied”, in the second half we warm to this woman, from her first true love (who at 21 is recovered by his upper class family and married to the “right” kind of girl) to her acceptance of her life as a permanent denizen of a bar in Montmartre, in her sixties.  She has an odd but interesting relationship with her pianist who, having previously walked out to escape her demands, finally returns to recover her hat.  The Brassaï photo is revealed once more, but we now know the truth behind the picture.

This is a brave work, and a great example of the value of the Made in Canberra project, with excellent quality in the work by Susan Pilbeam as director and dramaturg; Alan Hicks as pianist and in character; Imogen Keen for a wonderful evocative set, reminding me very much of the erstwhile School of Arts Cafe, Queanbeyan; Liz Lea for choreography which recreated the styles of the times, from the 1870s to the 1930s; Gillian Schwab for lighting; Victoria Worley for providing costumes that could peel back the years as Bijou remembered them; and Chrissie Shaw herself for an original work, both personal and socially significant, and for singing and speaking with such vocal range – from the likes of Johann Strauss, various art song composers, Eric Satie, Kurt Weill and, to conclude, to Jean Lenoir’s Parlez-Moi d’Amour – just my thoughts, indeed.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

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