Hit show returns to Melbourne Arts Centre
It was a record cover that first gave director Stephen Helper the idea for the runaway success, Cafe Rebetika! His wife is Greek Australian and she had all these old albums that he'd never heard.
On one cover was a group of tough looking guys in an alley, but they weren't holding guns, they were holding musical instruments. He thought, 'there must be a story here'. He listened to the music and wondered that he'd never heard it before. It was sad and beautiful, yet affirmative. Then he researched its history; the catastrophe of 1922 when the Greeks were forced out of Asia Minor, and came back to Greece only to be shunned, and treated as outsiders.
But they brought their music and their instruments, and appropriated the musical forms and instruments of their new home, filling the new fusion with their stories of sadness, loss and hope.
"It's music, but it's connected to a philosophy," he explains. "People generally describe it as blues or flamenco; the music of a subculture, of outcasts. It's defiant, an assertion of humanity. It's saying 'You can't tell me my story or feelings or hardship isn't worthy. I will not be crushed.'"
He found collaborators and the show evolved into Cafe Rebetika! First staged two-and-a-half years ago in Melbourne, early audiences weren't certain, but word of mouth travelled fast and the last ten shows were sold out. After touring up and down eastern Australia, it finished at the Sydney Opera House last May. That season sold out before they even opened. "I was teasing them at the Arts Centre, 'Oh, it's been going so well, you should have us back.' This time we're in the Playhouse, which is larger."
Now, after five months off, they are reviving it, and to Helper the music still sounds as fresh as ever, even after all these years of channelling it. "Every time I hear it, I think 'that's just so great'. The writers of this music, it's like they put a cable into themselves and eighty years later, you're listening to the heart and the soul of the guy who wrote it." The cast is now completely new from when the show started two-and-a-half years ago, but each actor who comes to the play says they're so thrilled to be part of it. All the roles are good, fun, and the actors have all brought fantastic energy, enthusiasm and commitment.
"This is the new improved version. The original was perhaps a little long, so we've cut it a bit. This is tighter. There are some new songs that work a little better. This time you'll get more from less." So is Cafe Rebetika!, a story set in 1930s Greece, relevant to Australian audiences that perhaps don't have that heritage or know that history? "Emphatically, yes. The issues here of refugees and displaced people; the lack of acceptance, the fear of the unusual or the unknown; these are difficult issues that we are grappling with everyday here. So the stories are universal, they can make you laugh or cry just as much as they ever did."
Cafe Rebetika! is on at the Arts Centre, Melbourne from 3-13 November.
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