- October 1, 2018
Cabaret artiste with a streak of mischief and performance a mile wide, Camille O’Sullivan has taken the songs of Nick Cave, PJ Harvey and others to tell haunting tales everywhere from the sassy stage of La Clique to Sydney Opera House. Victoria Nangle catches up with her.
What made you want to reflect the international ‘state of the nation’ in Where Are We Now?
Well, that’s a good question and there are several reasons. I think it was a personal thing. I was such a massive fan of David Bowie and Leonard Cohen because they were beacons of light and they made me believe in myself when I was younger. They made me want to sing. They died and at the same time the world was off kilter. Everything they stood for was anti Brexit and Trump so the whole world felt a bit scary once they were gone.
My decision to do the show was a reaction to what was happening around us all at a time. It came from a need for humanity and spirituality in a world where everything isn’t what it was. The show is a love letter to them both and a way of showing us all that we can care for each other and look after each other in the darkest of times.
Darkness exists in this world and most of the big classical plays don’t end well, but it’s the journey that the writers go through that’s the important thing, and then how the people reading the story take what’s being said.
Writers have always held a mirror up to society and people like Bowie and Cohen made me interested in the world when I was growing up. I want this show to look at the world and where we are in it. The last album was called Where Are We Now? and that’s the question I’m asking. I think we’re used to living in a heightened place of fear and seem to have normalised all the terrible things that have happened in places like America, France and England recently. For me I’m a spiritual person and the songs I sing in Where Are We Now? are giving me spirituality, in the same way that they have many people.
And how do you do this – I’m fascinated, as I’ve seen you occupy and inhabit each song as a story, as to what your song choice might be and how your performance of each connects to contemplation of the “crazily-changing world”.
I suppose this time I feel like it’s a bit different. Before, it was about me becoming many different personalities and characters and my shows usually rely on me being something else. As Bowie said; “some people are too scared to show it, but we all have different aspects”. The songs relate to the fact that you may think that at this point in your life you’re just one type of person but the show is about knocking things on the head and seeing who you can really be. Just like my favourite song lyric from Leonard Cohen” “there’s a crack in everything and that’s how the light gets in”.
There’s a song called ‘The Crack of Doom by The Tiger Lilies where I don’t say Trump by name, but you know it’s him
To me that means that the world is beautiful but the other things that aren’t beautiful can be incredible also in their own way. This show is more Camille than ever. There’s less changing clothes and more of me saying – look, things are a bit messed up, but we’re all in it together. Also, I’m getting older and there’s an honesty in me as a performer now that maybe wasn’t there before and I can’t get into some of the outfits that I used to get into or do the things I used to do, so this show relies more on me being me.
People like PJ Harvey, who I never went to hear before, now interest me and her song I perform is about England being in a state at the moment, but it’s done in a brave and fearless way that describes the country as it is just now. Then songs like ‘Darker Than The Day’ by Nick Cave are more like a hymn. There’s a song called ‘The Crack of Doom’ by The Tiger Lilies where I don’t say Trump by name, but you know it’s him because of the way he keeps saying billions and billions and billions, so I say it too in that song. People laugh. The song is funny but it’s true, the crack of doom is coming. I do believe in having empathy in other people’s lives and if people are struggling then it’s one for them to listen to and take inspiration from.
And then there’s ‘The Future’ by Cohen. I love it. It’s tough to perform but I do it in my own way – it’s gentle at the start but it ends up as a hurricane. A lot of people say that they never saw it performed that way before and I like that.
Were there any tracks/songs that you wanted to include but just couldn’t be due to time restrictions, legal wranglings, or they just didn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the show?
There always are songs that I’d like to include but just can’t for a variety of reasons. I’m a big Radiohead fan but usually stay away from the favourite ones. I don’t include things like ‘Hurt’ because I think that people have heard it too many times, but then after shows people ask why I didn’t do it because they were looking forward to it, so I should probably add it back in again.
When you’re in Edinburgh (for the Fringe) you only have a certain time allowance but hopefully now I will be able to fit in total songs because I can have more time.
I was distraught after Bowie and Cohen passed because they were everything to me. I do a love letter to them with this show and I now feel closer to them through doing the shows, and people that come to see the show feel that too. I’m still very connected to Bowie in my decisions every day. He made me want to sing and I find it still very moving to hear him. I’m still very fortunate that I can sing his songs on stage, which is different to when I was singing at home in the bedroom mirror as a child.
With Where Are We Now? being a mirror on the now, what music would you hope to use to reflect a hope in a hypothetical future show?
I suppose part of it is that the show has a nod to the future, because the likes of Cohen always make me think that there’s hope. That’s why I like those artists. They make you see possibilities even when you’re on your knees. I’m working on a Nick Cave show just now and I’ve never done just one person’s music, but I’ve loved him for a long time. I feel the loss he went through himself and it’s wonderful to hear his music reach so many people. This show is because I enjoyed listening to his music. It’s about what he went through and seeing that he turned it into something beautiful. The artists I choose for the show help me take the show down dark and sad, but I make sure we have fun too. By the end of each show I want to make sure something has happened. There’s no rule book but I’m not afraid to laugh on stage and not afraid to cry either. If you can laugh and you can cry then there’s hope. Feelings are okay. It’s when you shut down that there’s a problem. Hope makes us want to dance around the room. But I like shows that provoke you and unlock different kinds of feelings in you. Life is a celebration and music does help me show people that.
I first saw you in La Clique, many moons ago. Would you ever return to a cabaret ensemble – perhaps of your own curating – in the future? Perhaps a Caravan of Camaraderie?
Well, it was such a special and incredible show to be a part of. I do go back to perform again from time to time with them and am still friends with everyone. I don’t know if I’d do something like that myself though. I did an evening of poets and dancers with some of my favourite artists and that was a great thing to do. I never say never though, and think it’s always brilliant to work with other artists. I think the wonderful magic formula to a good show is when the audience is there not knowing what’s happening next. I might test something out in the future but it would be different to what La Clique was. When we were doing it, I knew I’d never do anything like that in my life again. My mother said I was the most normal thing in it and I love that.
How was that different from being in a musical’s cast, as you were in Sweeney Todd?
It’s very different doing something like La Clique to doing a stage show or musical. Even though Sweeny Todd was singing more than really performing. When I was in La Clique, and I was spotted in Brighton by them – and that is what started my real love affair with the city by the way – I was doing ‘In These Shoes’ and he picked us because of what each person could bring to the show. We all came with our performances and eight of us were just equal performers – and then it was like ‘you’re go is next’ but we just looked after our own performances.
But with Sweeny Todd and other plays, the weight is taken off your shoulders. It’s about the show and how you make the show better. You can make your own role better but it’s about the show. I was the bald cap beggar woman with no make up in Sweeney and had a small part but it was pivotal to my career. I usually do my own shows and do a two hour show and in Sweeney I had to make my own scene better, but as part of the bigger show as a whole. Strangely, The Edge from U2 saw me in that and auditioned me over in America for the Spider-Man theatre show with me as Spider Woman. They went with someone else but they used my recording to show the cast about performance, which I’m flattered by. I love not being the main thing on stage and to become someone else for a while.
Is there a favourite specific role in a theatrical show you would join another cast for?
Well I suppose, the typical things such as getting a role in Cabaret or Chicago. They’re amazing shows but it’s hard to think which role I’d play. David Bowie’s Lazarus would have been something I’d love to do. And anything Shakespeare too, as I love that. I don’t think I’d do anything big in the West End, but as I say – never say never.
When audiences come to see Where Are We Now? at Theatre Royal Brighton, which song from your book will be on their lips as they leave the theatre, and which one will be haunting their minds days later?
Hopefully they’d be haunted for the right reasons. I think that ‘Ship Song’ I have to include, as it’s very special to me and everyone loves it. ‘Darker Than The Day’ is one people seem to like too. And also ‘Galaleo’ is one that is very popular and I love to perform. ‘Marieke’ is about vulnerability, so I feel fragile when I sing it but I turn into a lion at the end.
Camille O’Sullivan: Where Are We Now?, Theatre Royal Brighton, Monday 26 November, 8pm, £25.15, www.atgtickets.com