A response to My Fair Lady, Meine Faire Dame tackles the failure of language and the rise of popular music as a prime means of self-expression in a thrilling production, writes Joyce McMillan
IT’S A chill, bleak morning in January 2012, and I’m sitting in a small corner café in Valence, France, with one of the strangest and most glamorous groups of performers it’s ever been my pleasure to meet. There’s Tora Augestad, a tall, gorgeous Norwegian singer – trained for opera, in love with jazz and cabaret – now based in Berlin. There’s Michael Von Der Heide, a pop star back home in Switzerland, with a tiny, infinitely sweet tenor voice. These two are firm friends, always giggling and joking. And at a small corner table, in a super-smart tweed cap and overcoat, sits Graham F Valentine, the Dundee-born actor and singer who long ago left the text-based world of British theatre for a more adventurous creative life in continental Europe, and now lives in Paris; he radiates a Garbo-like preference for morning solitude.
Not present in the café, though, is the man who brought them all together; for along with five other performers, these three make up the cast of Swiss director Christophe Marthaler’s latest mind-blowing adventure in music theatre, created in Basel, and touring its way across Europe, en route to the Edinburgh Festival. Meine Faire Dame is a thrillingly eccentric show, a two-hour response to the themes of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady set in a college language laboratory, where a group of 21st-century lost souls – like a kind of group therapy session – meet to tangle with issues around the failure of language and the rise of popular music as a prime means of self-expression, in the age of the mass-audience television talent show.
“The idea for this show arose back in 2010,” explains Valentine, who has worked regularly with Christophe Marthaler since the two met as students in Zurich 40 years ago, and plays the Professor Higgins figure in Meine Faire Dame. “The theatre in Basel is what they call a Dreispartenhaus, with a theatre company, an opera and a ballet company in the same building. The opera company was doing a straight production of My Fair Lady, and Marthaler said he wanted to create a response to it – a kind of echo-chamber to the Lerner and Loewe music that was flowing through the building.
“I think he had the basic idea that there would be a self-help group, and a Henry Higgins character, and a pianist. Higgins represents the old-fashioned, empire-buiding, controlling element of humanity, and the pianist maybe the things we rehearse, or prepare, which may not turn out to be of any use. And then – well, Christophe’s idea is always to bring together a group of artists he knows he can work with, and to encourage them to be creative, to see what emerges.”
In the case of Meine Faire Dame, what emerges is an explosive and sobering mixture of song, slapstick and pure, tragic meditation on the state of our civilisation; and its most striking feature is its astonishingly eclectic playlist of music, all thrillingly well sung, and ranging from an unforgettable version of Everything I Do, I Do It For You, to the heights of the classical repertoire and raw-edged 1920s cabaret. “I think it’s about sprachlosigkeit,” says Tora Augestad, “the loss of language, or language-less-ness. Spoken language, body language and musical language.”
Grahame Valentine agrees. “I would say that it’s about the impotence of language, and how we end up saying nothing at all. The show holds together by being precise, but the precision is in the music. Christophe’s rehearsal process is very much about the performers bringing their ideas to the action, and he can be a very playful director; but in the end, he makes the final decisions about what stays and what goes. And he has a great instinct, a musician’s instinct, for knowing when something is done; how much to repeat, how much to exaggerate and when to finish. I would say, too, that this is a show that thrives by putting opposites together. It’s something to do with pop culture taking over. You can see that as totally hollow and irrelevant, or you can take it and transform it into something else; and that – the transformation – is what Christophe does.”
• Meine Faire Dame – ein Sprachlabor, Lowland Hall, Ingliston, 14, 15, 19 August at 7:30pm; 17, 18 August 2pm.
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