‘Robyn Archer: An Australian Songbook’ was poignant.
When the very presence of Australian theatre icon, Robyn Archer, is enough to provoke cheers and thundering applause from an audience, you know you’ve got a hit on your hands. But Queensland Theatre’s commissioned cabaret piece, devised and performed by Archer, leans not on her star-power but on a deeply developed viewpoint of Australian politics, culture and history in ‘Robyn Archer: An Australian Songbook’.
Archer’s piece reaches deep into the Australian psyche and brings forth a mirror in which we can reflect on our history. Originally programmed in Queensland Theatre’s 2021 season, the show has faced numerous delays due to COVID, however, makes its triumphant debut as their third show of 2022.
‘Robyn Archer: An Australian Songbook’ is a deeply political work, laced with satire. The production celebrated some of Archer’s cutting poetic songs, such as ‘The Menstruation Blues’, and ‘The Menopause Blues’. The positioning of song and spoken word allowed moments of sorrow to breathe, and humour to roar.
With parody songs from Kate Miller-Heidke about Facebook and Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech juxtaposed with laments from the Australian bush written by colonisers in the 1800s, ‘An Australian Songbook’ has one hand on the past, reflecting on what has been, and one hand on the now, promising reconciliation through story.
The ‘Backyard Abortion Waltz’, once a romping parody is, with a simple preface and the state of the world today, a moment with incredible weight and sorrow. This is just one instance of how Archer uses music from days gone by to reflect on Australia today. Another standout moment was Archer’s rendition of Dr Lou Bennet’s song about her birthing tree ‘Jaara Nyilamum’. It is a haunting piece of music that harkens back to the fierce power of nature, and Australia’s dark history – both themes that are potently present throughout the songbook.
The show reached its soaring climax with a medley of anthems, jingles and pub songs written about towns and cities across Australia. You could see each audience member perk up, slap the knee of the person sitting next to them and smile when they heard the name of their hometowns, none more than the one about Brisbane, which concluded the night.
Lighting design by Geoff Squires brilliantly accompanied the emotional highs and lows of the story, and provided a transformational backdrop for the ever-changing time and place referenced through song.
The show does not leave Archer to her own devices, as she is backed by a band of immensely talented and charismatic musicians. George Butrumlis, Cameron Goodall and Enio Pozzebon form the trio of accompanists who gave a flawless musical performance and contributed so greatly to the depth and dynamism of the work.
This show could just have easily pleased crowds with songs like ‘I Come From a Land Down Under’ but Archer’s masterful storytelling and selectivity are what proves, again, why she is worthy of the icon status she holds. As soon as she took the stage, the audience knew they were in for a powerful and impactful performance, one that dares to look profoundly at who we are as Australians. It was one of the most introspective, delightful and reflective pieces seen on a Brisbane stage for a long while. ‘Robyn Archer: An Australian Songbook’ has a promising future and is sure to leave its mark as a landmark piece of theatre.
The show received multiple standing ovations through its opening night, and they were most deserved. Those rounds of applause represented not only an arts community that has emerged from the darkness of COVID but a community that has emerged victorious.
‘Robyn Archer: An Australian Songbook performs until Saturday, 9 July 2022 at the Bille Brown Theatre. For more information, visit Queensland Theatre’s website.
Photography by Brett Boardman