ROBYN ARCHER: AN AUSTRALIAN SONGBOOK
ROBYN ARCHER: an Australian Songbook, Upstairs Belvoir St, 18-29 October 2023. Photographs from Brett Boardman and Claudio Raschella
From the evening four-year-old Robyn first high-kicked down the stairs beside her grandmother at the family pub in Adelaide, she was destined to be an entertainer. What wasn’t clear then was how an unquenchable thirst for learning and the world, plus a unique singing talent, would propel the scrawny, asthmatic kid far beyond her roots to National Living Treasure and undisputed Rudest Yodeller in Australia. (Okay, I made that up, but she’d win anyway.)
Now, at 75, Robyn Archer is sounding better than ever – who needs a few top notes when you can do so much with the rest of the voice? And a lifetime’s music, study, fascinations, causes, beliefs, and bloody-minded devilment have brought forth arguably the finest work of her career.
An Australian Songbook is classic Archer in that it’s unpredictable, improper, challenging, funny, subversive, didactic, heart-stirring, and illuminating. The usual suspects are notably absent, although led by guitarist Cameron Goodall and backed by George Butrumlis (accordion) and Enio Pozzebon (keyboards), they rip through Goanna’s “Solid Rock” in electrifying style.
Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be a show of Archer’s devising if the one-time Elizabeth SA high school teacher didn’t take us on a revealing Australia-You’re-Standing-In-It tour of its darker corners. She begins with a deceptively whimsical ditty penned for the 1988 “bicentennial”: “I Am Not Nor Will I Ever Be”. She continues, unafraid to be true to long-held convictions, knowing her audience will go with her. (The Belvoir season is almost sold out and was as soon as tickets went on sale.)
Archer’s belief is that if you have ten good ideas they must be tossed out to the world (not clutched protectively to one’s bosom). That’s how one or two will come to fruition. It’s how she’s approached her career: grab it and it may work. If not – on to the next adventure. And she’s never stopped trying, leaping from one height to the next.
From 1980s stage show Songs From Sideshow Alley, Archer revives the poignant “Backyard Abortion Waltz” (scattered giggles in the audience until the song’s gravity is realised). By the time the “dead Sheilas show”, A Star Is Torn, turned Archer from Australian household name to West End star, she was already deep into a new phase, through John Willett’s scholarship and encouragement, to explore Brecht-Weill. That she became the finest interpreter of the canon since Lotte Lenya is evidenced in two albums recorded in 1984 with the London Sinfonietta and Dominic Muldowney: RA sings Brecht. In Songbook, influence from that seminal era is to be heard, notably in the satirical, minor-key ballad, “Dig Up Dirt”, co-written with Paul Grabowsky.
For such a major key performer, Archer has always been inordinately fond of the minor keys – the better to dish profundity and melancholy, and to capture the wandering ears of an over-stimulated audience. She does it repeatedly in Songbook and part of the show’s pleasure is feeling how the cunningly steered emotional rollercoaster soars and dips over the two hours-plus-interval show. The mature performer is as cunning as a shit-house rat.
Modulating the bawdy and the beautiful are the reminders Australia needs today – after the Referendum debacle. The fiction of Terra Nullius is craftily dropped in via Yothu Yindi’s “Macassan Crew” – about the fisherfolk who were here centuries before any European. Yorta Yorta woman Dr Lou Bennett gave Archer permission not only to perform the moving ballad of the birthing tree “Jaara Nyilamum”, but also to sing it in language. Then, through tender reference to such luminaries as Ningali Lawford, Archie Roach, Ruby Hunter, Gurrumul Yunupingu and Mandawuy Yunupingu, Archer notes that all were younger than she when they died – still on the wrong side of that gap.
The sea shanty “Bound for South Australia”, first documented in 1888, nods at more recent history, while Peter Stannard’s last composition, “Lola’s Misgivings”, stands in for the politically suss Eureka Stockade rebellion and a visit to it by the exotic dancer Lola Montez. Archer’s kaleidoscopic approach isn’t chronological but is logical: wherever we are, there’s a song and a yarn to savour. From Katherine Thomson’s adaptation of Kenneth Slessor’s Darlinghurst Nights poems, Archer chooses “In Choker’s Lane” – the once infamous Palmer Street. Piquantly, Casey Bennetto’s Keating the Musical gets a nod through its original Gareth Evans (Enio Pozzebon) with Cameron Goodall sitting in for Cheryl Kernot.
Because humour is a staple ingredient, women on opening night chortled along with Archer’s own “Menstruation Blues” (the bandsmen on chorus), and many more chortled ruefully with “Menopause Blues”. Outright raucous laughter greeted the skewering of errant lovers in “An Insect on the Windscreen of My Life”, and Kate Miller-Heidke’s “Are You Fucking Kidding Me?”
And there is so much more besides. The band and its leader have been on the road long enough to be faultless yet give the impression they’re as freshly thrilled as if it were first time out. As a dear friend, mentor, collaborator, and encourager for more than 40 years, Robyn Archer still amazes, amuses, and inspires me. My life has been enriched by her presence, and An Australian Songbook is yet another brilliant chapter. Recommended without reservation.