Okay. I can now officially declare that Festival 2007 is on a par with Festival 2004 for providing us with evenings of mind-numbing tedium. Festival 2004 brought us Le Soulier de Satin; The Composer, The Singer, the Cook and the Sinner and Orfeo and Eurydice. So far this year we have had Poppea; Mabou Mines Dollhouse and tonight, The Tiger Lillies.
When the Festival programme came out, I booked for this more in hope than in expectation. I have long thought a cabaret element to the official Festival would liven things up, but it was not to be. As with so many of these things, I left wondering what kind of genius it takes to put so many musicians on stage, use so many potentially exciting instruments (including the organ) and yet provide such dull musical fare.
This is the more surprising given the lengths the Festival went to to warn those buying tickets that “The Tiger Lillies have been known to use bad language, very bad language indeed” (EIF programme) and the man at the box office who warned me terribly earnestly that there was likely to be bad language and adult content at this event. You would therefore think that it must be exciting and shocking. But, like so much else at this year’s festival it was dull.
The first half was, according to the programme, meant to be The Tiger Lillies version of Orfeo. It began in bizarre fashion. The hall lights dimmed and the members of Concerto Caledonia proceeded gingerly on stage through the darkness, while those of us in the audience waited for the first crash and howl of anguish which would have indicated that a priceless 15th century instrument had been damaged beyond repair. They played an innocuous overture. There was another pause. Then a singer in white face rushed on. Ah, I thought, drama. But no, Keith Lewis sat down beside the piano and took us through several funereal verses. I cannot tell you what the song was about since there was no text in the programme, and his diction was dreadful. The music continued samey and dull. Another pause. Finally, The Tiger Lillies arrived wearing slightly odd fitting suits and hats. Pausing only to retrieve his hat from Lewis, and evict him from the piano stool, their lead singer (Martin Jacques) took up his place at the piano and continued with the same funereal like dirge. His diction was no better, and had I not known that the story was supposed to be Orfeo, I would have had little idea what it was supposed to be about – thus destroying at the first hurdle one of the primary points of setting words to music. And, oh dear, the music. It was like a kind of early music version of minimalism, but, unlike say the best works of John Adams, this was a minimalism that went nowhere. The two singers droned on, the drummer hit the same sequence on his drums, smoke billowed from a funny little funnel behind the harpsichord and the atmospheric lighting occasionally shifted. The only man who really looked as if he was having fun was Concerto Caledonia’s super lute player.
Eventually, after something like fifty minutes of this, David McGuinness (Concerto Caledonia's leader) left his harpsichord and ascended through the organ gallery to the Usher Hall organ. In one of the rare moments of audible text it had been indicated that demons were now to appear. At last, I thought, drama. But the organ only joined in with exactly the same chord progression at pretty nearly the same volume that the forces below had been churning out for the last near hour. And that was that. Up they got and off they went. So did we, in desperate search of the bar.
Part Two must, I suppose, have been intended to justify all the pre-performance claims about how shocking The Tiger Lillies are. To the ambient lighting was now added three coloured globes. Concerto Caledonia seemed to think they were in Hawaii and now sported a secession of awful brightly patterned shirts (possibly borrowed from the Festival Director’s informal wardrobe), ill-fitting jackets and the odd funny little hat. Martin Jacques now divided his time between accordion and piano. Words continued to be only intermittently audible, and mostly became audible whenever Jacques felt it was time to swear, which seemed to happen quite a bit. Presumably having a second rate cabaret artist leer out at the Usher Hall and declaim the word “fuck” seven or eight times is meant to be shocking. It was not. Here, as in the first half, was a repetition of the same problems. The music was dull, the texts platitudinous. Kit and the Widow have been doing this kind of smut for years on the Fringe. They sail equally near the bone with swearing, and references to such things as child molestation and the horrors of war. But they do it with specifics – whether singing about their own family experience, or attacking George W. Bush. The lyrics are inventive, biting. They have a point. The Tiger Lillies simply utter generic lines, with repetitive music that goes nowhere. The only variety comes from Jacques occasionally playing the piano with his heel, or bashing it with a black dildo which my friend noticed on the piano in the first half. Oh, and I suppose it may also be considered “entertainment” when the drummer haphazardly demolishes his drum kit and spends the next number trying to reconstruct it.
I paused to boo as loud as I could on leaving the hall, but greatest praise must go to a fellow audience member directly behind me in the stalls who, when Jacques, leering as usual, declared his audience “twats”, responded loudly: “So are you.” Jacques, and his third-rate ensemble probably thought they had shocked him – I think it much more likely he was as bored as I was.
Reflecting on it later, I was particularly struck by the barrenness of the texts. Alan Bennett hits this point precisely in Forty Years On with the line: "Don't swear boy, it shows a lack of vocabulary." The three groups mentioned in this review (Mabou Mines; Vienna Schauspielhaus; The Tiger Lillies) all seem to view the texts they use as something of little importance to the overall show. For me, that makes for an empty experience, and seems a worrying trend in performance. I can't help thinking again of the intelligence of Shaw's Saint Joan - addressing often similar issues of love, war and religion but so much more profoundly.
Since there was some laughter at all of these events perhaps we have to conclude that it is all meant to be an elaborate joke. Supposedly refreshing silliness after years of McMaster seriousness. And humour is, as previously observed, a very subjective thing. Alternatively, perhaps acts like Mabou Mines, Kosky and the Tiger Lillies were all Mills could get at short notice given the botched nature of the handover. This year, I am constrained to give him the benefit of the doubt on both points - though there has been only scattered laughter at any of these performances. But if these same people get return fixtures in the manner of Bieto, somebody should start asking hard questions about Mills’s quality control.