After a delayed start, Robyn Archer: An Australian Songbook has finally made its way to the Bille Brown Theatre stage and, happily, it was more than worth the wait. Setting aside the assumed Aussie repertoire, An Australian Songbook explores the history of our country through a rather unexpected collection of Australian music, anchored by the magnetic presence of national treasure and cabaret legend Robyn Archer and her band.
Archer guides us effortlessly through her song selection, accompanying many with anecdotes both personal and historical. Together, we travelled from Yothu Yindi to Kate Miller-Heidke, and from songs for Aussie diggers to Archer’s own back catalogue. Veering from the powerful to the irreverent, it’s all suitably staged in a simple, cabaret style that makes it clear that we’re here to celebrate the music, rather than the musicians – though, of course, all of them get a deserved chance to shine.
It’s to be noted that every audience member won’t know every song, and that’s rather the point. There’s an assumed identity that comes with a country’s best-known tracks, a perception that we put out there every time we sing the same songs. An Australian Songbook aims for something different. Archer’s carefully curated selection is rooted in the underground; a collection of truths that aren’t always pleasant, but that speak to the reality of Australia. Audiences aren’t there to singalong and play the loveable larrikin; rather, we’re there to think a little and feel a lot. It’s a twist on the traditional narrative that feels true to both the spirit of cabaret as an underground art form, and to Archer’s pioneering career as an artist that blended the comfortable with the uncomfortable. Expect nothing less from someone who rose to prominence through Brecht.
Backed by long-term collaborators George Butrumulis, Cameron Goodall, and Ennio Pozzebon, Robyn Archer: An Australia Songbook is a wonderful showcase of the grit that makes both cabaret and Australian music great. Funny, passionate and often politically charged, this is a show that defies what it might look like on the outside – and I say this as both a British expat and one of the youngest people in the room last night. Art as activism and commentary isn’t a new phenomenon, and as artistic director Lee Lewis notes, while it’s incredibly important to promote and encourage emerging voices, sometimes you need to hear from the legends too.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Robyn Archer: An Australian Songbook plays at Queensland Theatre until July 9th. Tickets and more information HERE.
Header photo credit: Claudio Raschella