Read article in its original context here by Kylie Northover for The Age & The Sydney Morning Herald.
Reds in the beds
Zulya Kamalova tends to sing songs imbued with her own personality. But for her debut one-woman show, Evolution, Revolution And The Mail Order Bride, the ARIA award-winning Tartar singer wanted to inhabit the lives of other people.
In the work, which she describes as ”musical tragicomedy”, she plays French-born feminist revolutionary Inessa Armand, who was famously a lover of Lenin.
”I wanted to be somebody else, just for fun,” says the Melbourne-based singer, who arrived in Australia from Russia in 1991. ”But in the end, you are still attracted to characters that resonate with you, so I chose this Russian revolutionary.”
The work tells the intertwining stories of Armand and two ”alter egos” (all played by Kamalova) and their struggle with economic, political and moral crises.
”I felt I understood her – she really felt strongly about this idea of revolution and because I grew up in Soviet times … even though we kind of knew it wasn’t quite right, we were brainwashed to believe that they were the good ideals,” she says. ”I could’ve made a whole play about her; her life is so rich and interesting, but that didn’t feel enough.”
Legend has it that Armand tried to introduce the concept of free love to the ideology of Bolshevik Russia, but her famous lover dismissed the idea as bourgeois.
”They were such idealists. They thought it was possible to be completely free and everybody was equal and you could just share,” says Kamalova. ”I think Lenin was a little bit torn. It’s hard to say because a lot of that stuff has been secret – we weren’t allowed to know about Lenin’s sex life! He did have a wife and I think as the leader of that movement, he had to have that strong connection. There are some accounts that do describe him as quite promiscuous – it’s hard to separate the legend from the truth.”
The alter egos Kamalova has created – the modern Eva and the ancient Maya – appear throughout the work, while Inessa is torn between personal happiness and the great cause.
”Eva is the feminine, modern woman. She is kind of close to me in a way, even though I wasn’t a mail order bride. I came here all those years ago looking for a better life, so to speak. But the mail order bride, it’s still a huge thing, very popular in Russia and very much still going on. When you look into it deeply it’s astounding – the sort of things the women say and what they’re looking for. We’re trying to look at what is it that Inessa was fighting for – freedom of love and freedom from prostitution and women being able to express themselves in relation to this.”
The other alter ego, Maya, is a shaman figure, and perhaps the closest to Kamalova’s ethnic Tartar roots. ”She is a witch, so the music for her are pieces that sound a bit folkloric and shamanic and avant garde at the same time. She’s the ancient voice of the old, of the earth … which both of these other ladies are lacking … so both of them are a bit out of balance.”
It is, Kamalova concedes, a complex story, touching on many themes.
”It has connections to feminism and biblical and religious stuff, modern-day sexual fulfilment and relationships,” she says. ”I realised as I went through it the topic is massive – I can’t really come to any conclusions because these questions can’t be answered! I guess everyone’s going to hear something that’s close to their hearts.”
Kamalova spent three years developing the piece with director Maude Davey, perhaps best known for her burlesque work with Moria Finucane. Davey was drawn to the intriguing story, ”and because of Zulya herself, as a performer and a singer-songwriter”.
”The music is amazing, she’s an incredible singer,” she says. ”The potential to take all that power and deliver a theatrical experience turbo-charged by that, is really exciting.”
She says the questions Kamalova addresses of Inessa Armand’s legacy, could equally be applied to the Australian radicalism of the ’60s and ’70s.
”What’s the legacy of all that radicalism? Here we are and girls are wearing more make-up and higher heels and kids are getting more and more plastic crap for Christmas. Is that the world we’ve inherited from our radical forefathers?” she asks. ”Then there’s also a thematic running through it about sexuality and objectification of women … about the natural world and a kind of return to a simpler way. But it’s drawn in broad strokes and it’s lightly played; we’re not trying to be heavy-handed about it.”
The live music, under the direction of Erkki Veltheim, and described by Kamalova as ”Kurt Weill-esque”, plays a large part, says Davey.
”What we’re trying to do is something that people are always trying to do with musical theatre, which is tell a story with great songs where the music drives it,” says Davey. ”It’s a really saturated experience, a saturated visual palette. It’s very visceral, it pulls your energy around.
”That’s what I want for an audience: a colour-drenched, sensation-drenched, hour and 15 minutes and they come out and go ‘wow, I’m going to look up Inessa Armand, I’m going to think about that a bit more’.”
Evolution, Revolution And The Mail Order Bride is at fortyfivedownstairs, February 5-16. fortyfivedownstairs.com