Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome back to cabaret

Marcus Kernohan explores the massive appeal of cabaret as an art form in its own right

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 5 minutes
Published 21 Jul 2011
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2011 is, it would seem, the year of cabaret's grand entrance onto the Edinburgh festival scene: an entrance without much fanfare, but suitably heralded by the appearance for the first time of a standalone cabaret section in the official Fringe programme. But while it might seem incongruous to consider a fin de siecle art form in terms of a debut, there is a logic there somewhere. Cabaret has always been present at the festivals, but it has tended to lurk in the shadows of its more entrenched cousins – music, theatre and comedy. So perhaps this year is about not so much arrival as revival; a sequined, sashaying stepping-out for a conceptual old dame of the arts.

The official resurrection of the high-camp cabaret genre at this year's festivals isn't the genre most would easily recognise: no moon-eyed Liza Minnelli, fresh-faced Michael York or louche Joel Grey. In fact, for all that this may be the year of the cabaret, there is not one staging of the eponymous Kander and Ebb musical—which provides most casual viewers with their cultural reference point for the entire genre—to be had in Edinburgh this year.

In the cabarets of 2011, the all-singing, all-dancing chorus lines are replaced by an eclectic array of mostly one-man shows promising roughly the same cocktail of songs, laughter and artistic introspection.

Take Le Gateau Chocolat, for example. Generally, the sight of a large West African man decked out in pink wig and impossibly long fake eyelashes would suggest little more than a bog-standard drag act– a few pop standards, some innuendo-heavy punchlines and a garish ballgown. But there's more to him than that. Indeed, it's a characterisation the performer rejects outright: “I may be in drag, but I'm most definitely not a drag – or a drag queen,” he protests.

Five years out of law school and teetering on the brink of his thirties, Le Gateau's flamboyant persona is the result of a long-standing desire to sing and “the best non-choice I ever made.” For him, “good cabaret encompasses comedy, music, theatre and more. Why go for one when you can have all?”

This have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too attitude seems a common trait of the new wave of cabaret perfomers. As London chanteuse Lili La Scala puts it “it's not just music, it's not just theatre and it's not just comedy. It can be all those art forms, and at the same time you can make the audience laugh and cry along with you. Personalities are bigger in cabaret, and there is just a little more sparkle.”

Lili, who brings her new show Songs to Make You Smile to the Fringe in August, claims that the cabaret genre gives performers more artistic freedom and releases them from the constraints of audience expectations. “I find that with cabaret the audience is more relaxed and willing to go where you take them,” she says. “Billed as 'comedy' or 'music'... people get awfully disappointed when their expectations aren't met.”

But as well as artistic freedom, Lili tells us, the cabaret loosens what she perceives as aesthetic constraints on the perfomer. “I get to wear more sparkles and higher heels than may be strictly appropriate for a strictly musical performance,” she says.

Cabaret allows you to weave between genres with no explanation – from comedy to music and so on,” says Le Gateau, and that freedom “facilitates an honesty of character that an audience like to see. I like to achieve a deep level of intimacy with an audience, and having worked in opera, theatre and musical theatre, I've found that cabaret's the best vehicle for this.”

It is a strange dichotomy; the idea that an art form that so revels in its campness and dependent on outrageous stage personas could impart some truth about the performer, but Le Gateau Chocolat doesn't see a contradiction here. His show is “an insight into the man behind the lycra, maquillage, wigs and outrageous costumes,” he says, but it's not all about the visuals. The magic of cabaret performance, as he sees it, goes much deeper than that, with its roots in a “symbiotic relationship” between performer and audience and a desire to “laugh with the audience, cry with them, educate them [and] learn.”

Not only that, but he suggests that alongside the spectacle of it all, in well-executed cabaret there is also a more nuanced sort of exposition at play. “I come open-hearted, ready to bare my soul, and if [the audience] are willing to be commensurately receptive, we'll have an amazing show,” he says. “And if not, they'll hopefully leave entertained, having heard some opera and good music.”

The new generation of cabaret acts landing in Edinburgh this August might not fit neatly into traditional moulds, but they do not seem to have forgotten the essential spirit of escapism that lies at the heart of cabaret. Ultimately, claims Lili, the reason cabaret remains a treasured art form is because of its “wonderful nostalgia. It brings back to life the glorious colours of the Weimar Republic or world war two Paris,” she says, “or any other divine place that the performer fancies visiting.”