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AFTER a six-year absence, musician, director, composer and accompanist Godfrey Johnson hits Grahamstown with a triple bill this year.
He will take to the National Arts Festival The Shadow of Brel, a homage to Jacques Brel; a line-up of songs about love, murder and revenge in Stories of Crime and Passion; and his collaboration with Roland Perold in Coward & Cole.
It’s been an even longer time since, in his opinion, the festival offered a large bill of true cabaret.
This year marks several venues around the town which are home to specific kinds of shows or productions from particular places, and the Albany Cabaret Club is a new one.
Over the years Johnson has performed more than 20 one-man shows nationally and inter- nationally, and he won a 2007 Fleur du Cap for best performance in a cabaret for his work in Kissed by Brel.
Later this year he will embark on a national tour with Emile Minnie in The Minnie and Johnson Show, including a run at the Kalk Bay Theatre in November, but first there’s Grahamstown to contend with.
Over coffee at Café Mozart in Cape Town – up the road from where he teaches at the Rainbow Academy – Johnson reminisces about the old Settlers Hotel, where he used to perform cabaret shows in Grahamstown back in the day, alongside artists such as Irit Noble, Amanda Strydom and Nataniël, whom he holds up as the epitome of proper cabaret performers.
“The most politically challenging work of the 1990s was done by the Afrikaans performers such as Johannes Kerkorrel and the like, and there was an element of cabaret to their work.
“Cabaret is meant to subvert. It’s a great platform to exercise originality, that is if the writing is original.”
He says the line between a revue (a tribute to a person or a band) and cabaret is a fine one, and almost one of interpretation.
“I’m nervous that people are using the word ‘cabaret’ as an excuse to do inferior work. So you get people with their backing cds, belting out Celine Dion with a pink boa, and they call it ‘cabaret’. I think it’s karaoke, and it upsets me. A cabaret has to have a theatrical journey. Through the lyrics you have to take the audience on a journey.
Surprise is also a key element. “The audience has to say: ‘Oh, we’re being challenged’.”
Hence, for him Stories of Crimes and Passion falls under cabaret because he also brings a little bit of himself into the performance, through original material.
Stories of Crimes and Passion had a short run in Cape Town: “it’s a much darker show than The Shadow of Brel and it’s exactly what the title suggests.
“It’s done with a lot of honesty that makes the murderers understandable. Not sympathetic, but understandable.”
The Shadow of Brel may be using the work of only one person, but it’s also cabaret in that he creates a character.
Johnson describes the work of Brel and Kurt Weill as monologues set to music: “they’re acting pieces. You could speak the words without singing and they’d have the same power.
“Brel never judged. If you listen to the lyrics of his work, they are almost compassionate, but also with a sense of humour… and there’s hope.”
This will also be the last time in a long while that he gets to work with Roland Perold, his fellow artist in Coward & Cole, which is much lighter as it draws on the wit, innate absurdity and social commentary of Neil Coward and Cole Porter.
“The problem I have always had, people don’t really know what I do or what I am. So ‘he’s the piano player’, but that was never really my intention. I just happen to play the piano,” he laughs.
“I chose, in many ways, this style of performing because it allows me to incorporate all the things I love: singing, playing and acting and telling stories and writing about it.
“It is a great privilege to be able to do all those things in one take, because I am not in somebody else’s play, delivering the same lines over and over again.
“To be honest, I’m not very good at that,” he says self-deprecatingly, considering he has been doing a lot of film work lately, including David Moore’s Once Upon a Road Trip with Graham Weir, Louw Venter and Sue Mitchel.
• The Shadow of Brel; Stories of Crime and Passion; and Coward & Cole will be performed at the Albany Cabaret Club in Grahamstown at the National Arts Festival between Thursday, June 28 and Sunday, July 8. Book at Computicket. For more information, see www.national artsfestival.co.za