In The Creative Martyr’s bleak re-centering of cabaret, the duo are
There’s a brutal familiarity to Kabakunst. For a start, many of the songs are Martyr Classics. Kabakunst, created in collaboration with the Acquisecent Orchestra, Tom Harlow, Kim Khaos, John Celestus, Spangled Shadow, Bert Finkle and Markee de Saw, Calum MacAskill, Rufus and Ben, Tuesday McPhail, Drew Peacock, and Heather MacIntyre, trades heavily on its audience’s knowledge of previous Martyrs' shows. From the moment they introduce themselves, we’re anticipating cheerful tunes about death, drunkenness and destruction. More than that, though, familiarity is built into the very structure of Kabakunst. It moves, slowly, deliberately and relentlessly, towards its inevitable conclusion.
As the title suggests, the entire action (or inaction) of the piece is confined to the world of cabaret. The events of the outside world, represented by a video feed of political speeches on a backdrop, all occur around this peripheral point. Most of the time, though, we watch the distracting routine of musical showstoppers. They get the crowd up for a stomping march. They demand the burning of dangerous books, and have the audience help them build a literary pyre. Tom Harlow embodies the sexual seductiveness of money. Memories of youthful idealism are revived, celebrated and abandoned.
This is choreographed resistance. Failed revolution distilled. Each routine, each jump forwards in time, is signalled with an interlude as the Martyrs grapple for meaning. Through it all, The Acquisecent Orchestra stare out with a chilling indifference, providing both musical depth to the songs and adding to the sense that the pair are trapped in a prison, in which observation is punishment. They seems to be obeying a regime enforced by the two silent henchmen who lurk around the margins of the stage. When the Martyrs chat or mime resistance or mockery of these sentinels, they are simultaneously trying to make themselves as invisible and inaudible as possible in this rigidly deterministic world.
The Martyrs might be the centre of the narrative, then, but they pointedly do not have the only voice within it. Unlike their earlier shows, they have other artists who dominate certain routines. And when Tom Harlow sings and dances, his glamour and choreography takes centre stage. “I'm money,” he smoothly croons before stripping and hiding behind whirling fans of feather. While The Martyrs may be robbed of their singular control of the narrative, the flavour and themes are clearly their own. Indeed, many of their routines are remixed versions of familiar tunes that speaks deafeningly of the controlling world in which they dwell.
But can Kabakunst really be thought of as a post-modern re-framing of Wiemar Cabaret? It certainly reveals what The Martyrs see as the horrific undercurrent of cabaret, including its most rebellious manifestation, exposing the careless apathy of a genre which is enshrined at the heart of the resistance to fascism and with which we are so often asked to sympathise. Yet still it restricts the performers to idealistic displays of helpless misery, giving them no more agency than characters in a scripted tragedy. The whole narrative of the show, meanwhile, is structured around the failure of the revolutionary ambitions to become activism. The presence of the two henchmen is the scaffolding holding the characters in place, their shadowy presence dominating from offstage with their comings and goings and gestured demands.
Cabaret itself is imagined by The Martyrs and co as a brooding,
moody narcissist, clad in black and wrapped up in his own worries. Musical numbers that begun in pleasure (naughty books, having a cheeky drink, getting personalised service from corporations), progress from celebration to domineering and explicit statements of control to mindless acceptance, are all ultimately about cabaret itself– its desire, its pain. On one of the few occasions when we actually see striptease, Tom Harlow bursts onstage brandishing a pair of fans. He then goes on to play and dance to the soundtrack of his own suffering, wilfully ignorant of the rest of the cast.
Wildly thrashing his fake wings, Tom Harlow's character invites an immediate comparison with David Bowie, a man tragically obsessed with identity and determined to inhabit his own myth,
even to the extent of losing his sense of self. But every act of self-celebration has its accidental victims, its civilian casualties, of which cabaret is one. This is boylesquer as careless egotist, focused on his own meandering path to satisfaction at the expense of all others around him. While he dances, lost in indulging his own emotions, The Martyrs provide a melancholic accompaniment, reduced to supporting actors in their own drama.
This is one of a series of characteristically stunning theatrical moments that break up the simple line of the narrative. Just as the movement from jollity to despair contained in the overall arc and individual numbers becomes predictable, I find myself dragged back by a brilliant routine or by a sudden, surprising display of skill, as in Khaos' dance on broken glass. As ever with The Martyr's work, there is an familiar use of crescendo that can be disengaging, but as soon as one of those moments interjects I’m brought back on board, that knot in my stomach tightening again.
Immediately after the show, someone tweeted that Kabakunst is “about the creativemartyrsie thing you can imagine”. I know what he means: the horrible beauty, the compelling satire, the pin-point precision, the intellectual rigour, the underlying queasiness, even the extended introductions that underscore their political convictions . While watching, I was reminded in particular of two other Martyr pieces: the fringe production of Tales from a Cabaret– the early optimism, the mounting unease, the strange combination of jollity and nauseous paranoia – and the haunting performance of Funny Trap at the Rio Cafe.
The latter was The Martyr's first take on cabaret as a metaphor for state control, whose madness was seen through the lenses of various twentieth century theatre practitioners: Constantin Stanislavski, Antonin Artaud, Bertolt Brecht, Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook . Here, The Martyrs adds her own mature style, and it is utterly uncompromising in its eclecticism and self-referentiality. I struggle with it in the moment of watching, but I am also completely convinced that this oscillation between detachment and uneasiness is exactly what I’m supposed to be feeling. This is a cabaret that The Martyrs are determined not to prettify or over-dramatise.
As in Funny Trap, the climax of Kabakunst offers an echo of Soviet style state observation, but with a bloody twist. In the Martyrs' version, resistance is not beautiful or romantic or even straightforwardly tragic; it is tedious and enervating, usually foiled by alcohol or self-importance. No wonder it’s usually kept offstage.