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Meow Meow stars in Victorian Opera’s ‘Tis Pity. Pia Johnson/Victorian Opera

Whores through the ages: ‘Tis Pity entertains but fails to cut through

‘Tis Pity borrows its title from 17th Century playwright John Ford, whose play (‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore) scandalised audiences with a brutal tale of incest and murder.

In the current Victorian Opera production, subtitled An Operatic Fantasia on Selling the Skin and the Teeth, composer and librettist Richard Mills, cabaret powerhouse Meow Meow and director Cameron Menzies turn their gaze to the figure of the whore through history. The show promises a salacious romp through the history of prostitution whilst (according to Mills) tackling “masculine hypocrisies” and human “self-delusion”.

With Meow Meow in the role of historical harlot and Kanen Breen as our narrator (and perhaps historical John) we fly through the ages: ancient Greece, Rome, the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, right up until the silver screen. In texts taken from emperors, earls and poets, the narrated voices compete to claim the prize of chief misogynist. The libretto is a compendium of history’s most hostile and outrageous attitudes towards women.

Both Meow and Breen brought elements of cabaret and vaudeville to their roles, lending the proceedings a suitably absurd mood. Though at times the dialogue was unclear, the sung numbers let the singers show their vocal talent.

If Breen’s role was narrator (voicing the various misogynistic proclamations of historically-important men), Meow was given little in the way of characters to embody. This undermined the possibility for the show to deal subversively with its subject matter.

Kanen Breen playing the narrator; Meow Meow the whore. Pia Johnson/Victorian Opera

The orchestra played with agility and enthusiasm and appeared to genuinely enjoy the theatrical flourishes asked of them (speaking parts in lieu of a chorus; a brass stand-up for a big-band flourish). The inclusion of an ondes martenot (an early electronic instrument capable of smooth oscillations in pitch) lent a pleasing element of early 20th Century Futurism to the soundscape.

The sparse staging employed a few props (a column, a staircase on wheels and several platforms), which were decorated with dismembered mannequin legs. Underlining not only the discomfort society feels with the purchasing of flesh, these splayed legs, along with Meow’s costuming and physical comedy, put the focus on objectification of women’s bodies. A trio of male dancers brought a little satire, silliness and occasional peppering of raunch to the stage.

The score delivered a pleasantly cinematic experience – thickly orchestrated with much use of the tutti orchestra. Though composed as ten operatic vignettes ’Tis Pity does not pursue a particularly operatic idiom (whatever that might mean today!), preferring instead humorous genre hopping. Doffing his cap to cabaret, vaudeville, and various dance forms, Mills kept the score light-hearted, perhaps missing an opportunity to pack the emotional punch the work’s subject matter deserved.

For a story so imbued with gendered violence and domination a bit of grit and dissonance might have been in order, but the polite orchestral writing leaves the show’s edgy ambitions unfulfilled.

Mills writes that “the story of ‘the courtesan’ is essentially the same in every age”, but this approach gives Meow little opportunity to imbue the figure of the whore with any agency (or historical specificity). Tossed about through the ages Meow fills the placeholder of “whore”, who is rendered voiceless as she narrates the words of men.

Giving Meow the opportunity to embody specific characters (surely the historical record – or the imagination – could have provided accounts of famous harlots) would have given her far more to work with.

Male dancers bring silliness and satire to the stage. Pia Johnson/Victorian Opera

Cabaret distinguishes itself by folding humour over into searing social critique; without moments of seriousness the form looses its power of provocation and is robbed of its emotional force. Meow’s virtuosic capacity for sudden pathos – that heat-stopping switch that turns absurdity into catharsis – was left unemployed.

‘Tis Pity works with a promising conceit, but as Mills writes in the program notes it was written at “breakneck speed” last November. While cabaret at times employs incoherence as a subversive strategy, this production simply came across as undercooked. Despite being armed with her Valkyrie sword not even Meow could provide the necessary feminist insurgency.

As it stands, ‘Tis Pity risks capitulating to the very “male hypocrisy” it seeks to address. Taking her final bow Meow is flanked by the men who have delivered a humorous history of misogyny (one might even like to believe that all this inequity lies comfortably in the past behind us), usurping what could (and should) have been a much more subversive history of whoring.

‘Tis Pity is showing at the Melbourne Recital Centre until February 8.

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