The 2015 Victorian Opera production of Die Sieben Todsunden with Meow Meow took me as close to seeing how Brecht and Weil must have imagined their work. It was a highlight of that year and the newly devised ‘Tis Pity song cycle reunites Meow and director Cameron Menzies, adds the rather divine tenor Kanen Breen and Richard Mills composing for a full orchestra. And it’s about exploring the history of prostitution. All the ingredients are brilliant, so what went wrong?
Of course, Meow and Breen’s performances are excellent. Their vaudeville-cum-Brechtian-cum-“Alan Cummings in Cabaret” clowns are backed by red velvet, three male dancers and Orchestra Victoria, with cheap shiny-red cardboard hearts on their music stands. The opening moments are full of hope as Breen sings that sex is both the question and the answer.
What follows is ten vignettes about how women have been exploited by men for as long as records exist. Their order is drawn from a hat in convenient chronological order. This device is only slightly less annoying than the alarm screaching the beginning of each vignette.
There’s no consistent theme. From Ancient Greece to contemporary Hollywood, there are narratives – not structured stories with characters – about “whores”, men using prostitutes, keeping wives away from whores, keeping women “subjugated”, evil menstrual blood and hypocritical religion.
The narrative voice is almost always male – even when delivered by Meow. When she does speak as a women, it’s confirming the male narrative that working girls (with cockney Pygmalion accents) are selling their souls.
With little exploration of a female point of view and research that feels as deep as a Wikipedia introduction, perhaps Mills’s boast that “This project was written at breakneck speed in the month of November” says it all.
‘Tis Pity is under developed and needs to find more heart than those cut from cardboard.