Barry Humphries: For the love of Adelaide

Barry Humphries, Australia’s greatest comedy export, is “thrilled and excited” about his inaugural Cabaret Festival as Artistic Director.

Satirist, actor, painter and writer. Humphries has ticked pretty much every artistic box in his six-decade career. But there was one box missing: Artistic Director. At 81, the creator of classic comedy characters Dame Edna Everage, Sir Les Patterson and Sandy Stone, will finally tick that off his list with the upcoming Cabaret Festival. And it is his love of Adelaide that made him want to take the role. “It’s corny to say it but I’m a big Adelaide fan,” Humphries says. “I’m in Adelaide every year, not working necessarily, but I go on painting trips to the Flinders Ranges with my friends David Dridan, sometimes John Olsen, and we go out there and paint, or with Geoff Wilson – one of Australia’s best landscape painters, who lives in Mt Lofty. So, I’m in the town and when I’m abroad, or when I get a chance to go a club or something, I like to see singers – especially singers, comedians too but not so often – and an opportunity to incorporate them in a festival of this kind and, of this importance, is a great privilege for me. It’s a new thing. And I guess if you don’t enjoy it, I’ll have to take the blame. But you will enjoy it,” he cheekily adds. Humphries first visited Adelaide as a young student actor in 1953 appearing at Her Majesty’s Theatre for the play The Wind of Heaven. He is the patron of Her Majesty Theatre’s Building Fund, which is raising money to upgrade the historic Grote Street theatre. Barry-Humphries-3 Humphries worked closely with Executive Producer John Glenn to curate the program for the 2015 Cabaret Festival, which includes comedians such as Adam Hills and Hannah Gadsby and singers including Karrin Allyson and Storm Large. There is also the show he has specifically curated for the festival, Peter & Jack, which Humphries will narrate. “I’m particularly proud of the fact that we’re doing a very special concert devoted to an Adelaide singer Peter Dawson, the bass baritone Peter Dawson, unknown to a younger generation, who in his day was the biggest recording artist in the world. We have Teddy Tahu Rhodes singing some of his great hits and combined with that is the review of the career and music of Jack O’Hagan, who composed the Along the Road to Gundagai amongst many other songs. “I think younger audience members, who don’t know either of these Australian musical figures, will be pleasantly surprised by this concert. It’s a big, large-scale music tribute and, of course, if O’Hagan or Dawson had been Americans, they would have massive national tributes to them. In Australia, we forget a lot of our great men, and I’m trying to make amends for that within the framework of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival.” Why do we forget artists like Dawson and O’Hagan? “We just move on to the new thing and the new thing and the new thing. Also, we still have this very slight inferiority complex: ‘Well, if they’re Australians, perhaps they’re not that important, you know?’ We’ve grown out of it to some extent, but it’s still there residually. And fashions in music do change. These artists composed and sang in an era before the electric guitar and their repertoire, we might say now, is a little folksy – a bit old fashioned, but it is still of a very high quality. Along the Road to Gundagai at one stage was almost an alternative Australian anthem. I’m longing to hear it played with a symphony orchestra because it will be the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra on stage along with some of our best singers doing justice to the memories of these two iconic Australians.” A couple of immortal Humphries characters will also appear at the Cabaret Festival including Sir Les Patterson, who will be presenting Songs for Sir Les. “He’s MCing [the show] because we’re going to have some of the beautiful singers from the festival all singing love songs. So Les doesn’t want to destroy the mood, you’ll see Les at his cleanest. His suit even went to the dry cleaner, admittedly 15 years ago. Les is going to sing a couple of his favourite love songs, which all I can say, will be a remarked contrast to the rest of the music that evening. Les’ charm, I sure, will carry the event.” Then there is the free 60 Years of Edna exhibition, which will be presented in the Festival Theatre Foyer. “Yes, from the [Adelaide Festival Centre’s] Performing Arts Collection, which like Her Majesty’s Theatre, is still hoping against hope for government support. I told them, at Her Majesty’s, that they should pretend that it’s a sporting arena – they’ll get money immediately, in an instant, an avalanche of money, but don’t mention art. The sound of the word ‘art’ – politicians run a mile. The Performing Arts Collection is quite distinguished and it is sustained largely by Jo Peoples [recently retired] and it lives in a basement under a car park, in the precinct of the Festival Centre. It may have a home one day, when the last stadium has been built in South Australia.” Finally, will Dame Edna grace the Festival Theatre stage? “She’s making an appearance at the Gala, so I believe.” Adelaide Cabaret Festival Festival Centre Friday, June 5 to Saturday, June 20 adelaidefestivalcentre.com.au/adelaide-cabaret-festival