Belvoir St Theatre, October 19


Robyn Archer. Photo: Claudio Raschella.

The title could have been A Bloody Australian Songbook, such is often the tone as Robyn Archer trawls the Oz annals. It makes no pretence at being an anthology of the best or most famous Australian songs, but rather is Archer taking us by the hand and pointing out rarities and marvels in assorted idioms, always with a penchant for the satirical, the political, the ribald and the feminist.

The upshot was a slightly different Archer. Whereas when she sings Brecht or Brel it’s as though she dons a mask, giving us studied renditions, here she was at ease in her own skin, voice and culture – a culture she variously finds hilarious, contemptible, sentimental, magical or just plain weird.

A fair slice of the material was her own, beginning with I am Not Nor Will I Ever Be, a song she wrote in London in 1988, which confirms what many of us always suspected: that she’s neither Crocodile Dundee nor Bazza McKenzie, nor even Germaine Greer. That set the tone for a show defined as much by what it isn’t (a museum of hits or nostalgia) as what it is.

Enio Pozzebon. Photo supplied.

The elusive thread of what it is includes Lou Bennett’s glorious Jaara Nyilamum, about her birthing tree, sung in Dja Dja Wurrung, with Cameron Goodall’s banjo arpeggios creating a rippling effect more likely to be found in nature than upon a stage. Andrew Ford and Ellen van Neerven’s Dark Cloud was as disquieting as it was beautiful, and Max Lambert’s setting of Kenneth Slessor’s Choker’s Lane is a classic of Australian musical theatre. Other composers ranged from Kate Miller-Heidke to Greg Champion, and on to Robert Davidson’s potent setting of Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech.

There’s an overdose of banal country music, making the show too long, and Archer’s choices have been swayed too much by lyrics over music. The latter realised is by George Butrumlis (accordion), Enio Pozzebon (keyboard) and Goodall (guitar, banjo), with all singing. It’s an intimate curiosity shop, and may have liked a smaller theatre.