Death came a’knocking to Melbourne this year in the form of two quite different shows that topped and tailed the Festival. The disappointments of festival opener Afterlife, a self-consciously esoteric, literally soul-searching opera from the Netherlands were thankfully assuaged by this quirky upbeat rage against the inevitability of death, We’re Gonna Die.
Described as an existential cabaret, We’re Gonna Die was written and performed by Young Jean Lee, a New York playwright/director with a reputation for adventurous work.
She happily admits she seeks challenges in her work, along the lines of “what is the last show in the world I would want to make?” For Lee, who has little experience as a performer, it was to front a solo cabaret, complete with singing and dancing. An intense workshop phase resulted in this stripped down, blessedly non-theatrical show of autobiographic monologue and songs with snappy lyrics like, “Horrible things happen all the time.”
Through a number of stories, we learn of the dismantling of Lee’s belief in her right to a pain-free life: a pivotal moment as a child when she witnessed the self-loathing and distress normally hidden behind the mask of a weird relative; painful playground politics; the losses of lover, grandmother, father. She speaks of the isolation of pain, and how comfort can arrive in the most ordinary of forms. Her matter of fact delivery is very funny however, and this is not a maudlin show – though the story of the consequences a friend’s marriage breakdown brings gasps of shock. It is this friend who reciprocates Lee’s support by giving her this advice: “Who do you think you are, to be immune from tragedy. What makes you so special that you should go unscathed?”
Those words form the lyrics to but one of the many songs throughout the show, sung by “non-singer” Lee, whose warm voice and clear articulation easily cut through the indie-pop arrangements of her backing band, Future Wife. Her unadorned delivery is disarming and refreshing, her tears are real, and her cheeky black humour is infectious.
As a finale, the four guys from the Future Wife join Lee for an expressive goofy dance, as the audience clap and join in the refrain “We’re gonna die”. We sure are, but for a short moment we’re all happy singing along with the wonderful Young Jean Lee.