Thursday, June 18, 2015

Adelaide Cabaret Festival - Steve Sheehan


Devised and performed  by Steven Sheehan with soprano Norma Knight and Guest starring Arapahoe, the miniature horse. Directed bySteve Sheehan with Jo Slone. Designed by Kerry Read. Lighting designed by Nic Mollison. SAound designed by Stuart Day. Produced by Belinda Hellyer. Horse trained by Jaci and Joey McEvoy. The Festival Centre Rehearsal Room. Adelaide Festival Centre. June 16-17 2015

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Norma Knight as Isolde. Steve Sheehan as Tristan. Photo by Sam Oster


This is not a version of Wagner’s stirring and powerfully dramatic opus. Quite the contrary. It is an absurd and clownish spoof by the droll and deadpan funnyman of Adelaide, requiring a quirky sense of humour to appreciate the silly antics of Tristan and his infatuation with the aged Isolde, played with vague distraction by Adelaide’s renowed soprano, Norma Knight. To add absurdity to the ridiculous, Sheehan includesa miniature horse in his parade of gags. Needless to say, in the tradition of W.C.Fields’s warning, Arapahoe steals the show.

There is potential for pathos in Tristan’s doleful longings and his mournful unrequited love, but it is too often squandered amidst a sequence of comic interludes as he lugs a keyboard through the dressing room, plays on the literal translations and not so literal of German scatological inversion, aand takes on the horse’s head in likely reference to the foolishmess of Shakespeare’s Bottom Throughout the performance, Sheehan accompanies jokes with the music of great composers such as Wagner, Satie, Brahms, Bach and Chopin. It is the Wagnerian interludes and Sheehan’s obvious competence on the keyboard that provides some relief from repetitive comedy. Advertised at an hour, the performance ran for fifty minutes, and I couldn’t help feeling that a half hour spoof would have sufficed. Sheehan is funny in the Buster Keaton tradition of the understated clown, and the ideas effectively hit the mark on first delivery. However, tight direction and a more clearly defined narrative would have had far greater impact. Perhaps a more astute knowledge of the opera would have struck an ironic chord of familiarity, but my occasional smirks were thwarted by obtuse actions, and not even the corny jokes could rescue the comic effect of his wry humour.
Norma Knight and Steve Sheehan in Tristan and Isolde. Photo by Sam Oster

Sheehan’s quirky eccentricity is not without appeal. His gentle undemonstrative style suits the subtle jibe of his humour and for some members of the audience , judging by the uproarious laughter behind me, Tristan and Isolde is hilarious. It is certainly clever, imaginative and irreverent, but this show needs a keener eye to maximize the business and provide a more engaging narrative.

Whether it is cabaret, opposed to Fringe comedy, is subject to debate. Barry Humphries’ festival holds as its mantra “There are no rules” and if “Life is a cabaret”, then all of life and all of art is able to claim the art of cabaret. I prefer a performance that snaps at convention and snarls at conformity. Cabaret is entertainment, but it is also protest and comment. I couldn’t appreciate the comment in Sheehan’s work and while others laughed and loved the humour, I couldn’t help feeling that I must have been missing something. Perhaps it was the spirit of cabaret.