The Black Cat Cabaret returns to the Spiegeltent with Nocturne, a brand new show featuring more than a few new faces.
When not entertaining the denizens of the Cafe Royal, The Black Cat is known for its annual prowls to the London Wonderground’s Spiegeltent. This time around, their latest project Nocturne digs deep into the 21st zeitgeist with the help of Freudian dream archetypes, Mozart’s The Magic Flute and the operatic skills of frontwoman Lili La Scala. According to the trailer, we can expect a thrilling blend of music, aerial stunts, circus and sideshow.
Director Simon Evans has previously seen action behind the scenes of Secret Cinema and Donmar Warehouse and has been a magical consultant for the National Theatre. We spoke to him about his latest production.
Nocturne seems to be very different from your previous projects. What drew you to this particular project?
I agree! The first thing is that it’s a far cry from my previous productions for Secret Cinema or the National. I have a paralysing phobia of boredom, so am always looking for something new and exciting to explore alongside my more traditional work.
When David Harris (the founder of Black Cat) spoke to me about Nocturne, it seemed too thrilling an opportunity to turn down. I can confirm that neither the process, nor the product, has a shadow of boredom about out it. It’s the most base and hedonistic thing I’ve seen in a good while.
Black Cat Cabaret is famous for the programme they put together and this year we’ve pulled out all the stops. If you can think of the myriad other circus shows that have been around in recent years, we’ve taken all their headline acts and built Nocturne around the likes of Lili La Scala, Michael Roulston, Nathan and Isis, Katrina Lilwall, Cabaret Rouge, Bret Pfister and Abi Collins. It’s a devastatingly impressive line-up. The chance to work with them, see how they build an act, then see them perform it to open-mouthed audiences is draw enough.
London is seeing more and more themed or narrative-driven shows like Cabaret Roulette, Cabaret Des Distractions, Baby Lame: Don’t Call It A Comeback and The Double R Club. What makes Nocturne distinctive as a cabaret or theatrical experience?
You mean in addition to it being the finest example? I joke, but I was afraid, initially, that I might come to rehearsals with my traditional theatrical background and struggling to convince these world famous performers to explore things in different ways. These guys are at the top of their game – would they listen to me as I tried to impose narrative on their established acts?
I talked to them about the idea of a 21st Century Man, beaten down and repressed by the cavalcade of bustle and noise around him; numb and exhausted. He can barely keep his eyes open on the train home. He gives into sleep and enters the Nocturne, a place in the spirit of Carrolls’ Wonderland or Lovecraft’s Dreamlands where he can explore his own subconscious. Everyone got behind the idea for the show at once, and set about building something new. It’s all original material.
That’s our distinctive element: our line-up. We’ve brought together a catalogue of performers who wouldn’t usually be accommodated in this kind of narrative of theme driven work, and managed to find ways to adapt their acts (or build whole new things) to fit in with the over-arching structure. I’d like to take the credit, but I just provide the context. I make it make sense, they make it mind-blowing.
What would you say were your trademark motifs as a director? Will we see those in Nocturne?
I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of creating a world and inviting an audience in. If the work on stage is too close to the audience’s own experience of life (sometimes as simply as being too naturalistic) it can allow them to enjoy the world passively. We never want that. We want them actively engaged.
So The Silence of the Sea (for the Donmar) created its environment through sound design, Thom Pain (at the Print Room) felt like an intrusion onto another show, and Almost, Maine (at the Park) surrounded them with snow, Northern Lights and pine trees. The worlds we create for Secret Cinema speak for themselves. We want them on the edge of their seats, leaning into the work.
Nocturne follows in that motif. We’re presenting a dream world and inviting the audience to come with us. We’ve all heard other people, and ourselves, throwing our truisms about our dreams like “It was you but it wasn’t you”, “We were at home but it wasn’t home” and “I was doing this and suddenly you were there too”.
There’s a Greek work, anagnorisis, which means recognition (in drama). We want the audience to recognise the world their in but also recognise that, with that, comes thrill. The world becomes narrative, but unpredictable (like a dream): acts interrupt each other spontaneously and thrillingly, rather than waiting for their place in line, offering a strange mix of thrill and comedy.
When those acts appear, we’ve tried to model them on Freudian and Jungian archetypes. I won’t go too far into it hear as there are some great surprises, but all the darker fragments of our Man’s subconscious are made flesh. Whatever he can dream, he can get.
They’ve not let me do that at the Donmar yet.
Who would you say that Nocturne was aiming for in terms of audience?
Well we’ve had two previews already and I’ve been amazed at the variety of audience we’ve had coming into the tent (all of whom have loved it). I’d want to point out that it’s a late night show (9.30pm) and that it’s not for children. Aside from that, I’d hope we’ve got something in there for everyone.
If you were, hypothetically, to look any of Nocturne‘s performers up online and imagine where they might fit in the darker corners of a man’s subconscious, you might be able to infer what sort of show we might be putting together and what the ideal audience might be.
There are a number of heavyweight cabaret musicians like Michael Roulston and Lili La Scala on board. How much influence did you have on that side of things?
I would love to say that I’d brought these stalwarts with me, but David Harris, the founder and producer of Black Cat, was the key decision maker in that regard. He knows this world inside out and back to front and knew, from our first meeting, who he wanted to get involved. Even me.
That said, I don’t think either of us assumed we’d be able to get all of his top choices together. There’s a lot of this kind of work around at the moment, a lot of shows vying for performers of this quality; for David to have got them all together, under one tent, is a remarkable achievement!
Lording over all of this is Lili la Scala, the queen of the Nocturne. We’ve based her on the ancient Greek muse Calliope. In mythology, she presided over eloquence and epic poetry. She was Homer’s muse when he wrote Odysseus’ journey home in the Odyssey, and now she presides over our MAN as he makes his own journey home: spurring him on and comforting him in equal measure.
Calliope also means “beautiful voiced”, which couldn’t be a better description for Lili. She and Michael are a phenomenal pairing.
Are there any plans to take Nocturne on tour?
Not yet. It’s now or never.
Black Cat Cabaret’s Nocturne officially opens at The London Wonderground’s Spiegeltent on 19 June and continues there for a number of selected dates until 11 September. See the official London Wonderground website for the latest details on tickets and timings.