Helen Clifton enters the weird and wonderful world of this androgynous act
“ANTONY, you’re gorgeous!” screamed a clearly overwrought female audience member. “OK”, he purred, gathering his white robes and smiling mysteriously to himself.Antony and the Johnsons aren’t crowd pleasers. Their other worldliness is the key to their charm.
Antony Hegarty, purveyor of transgender torch songs, soared his way through last Friday's Manchester International Festival show to a mostly delighted audience, while looking for all the world like he had just arrived from another planet.
His androgynous oddness is almost deliberately unsettling. And whilst a large proportion of the crowd were equally gender-bending – more reminiscent of a burlesque show than a gig at the Opera House - some were clearly there on the back of his 2005 Mercury Music Prize award, which garnered the New York based English singer a whole new set of fans.
It was these people who seemed most confused by the silver lady with the duct tape on her nipples who came on to perform an experimental dance show. To a churning, industrial soundtrack, she made a series of small movements while holding scythes and wearing an antler headdress. At first it felt intriguing. And then it just became daft.
Even the people with the most geometric haircuts were left blinking into the distance and wondering when the main act would appear. Unfortunately, they had to wait 40 minutes.
Ah well, perhaps you should expect such stuff from the founder of a performance collective called Blacklips. But when Antony finally came on, shrouded in a big muslin nightdress, he was greeted with a rapturous response.
A lone presence on stage, he belted out song after song, his face contorting with the effort of maintaining his high-pitched vibrato over the swelling accompaniment of the Manchester Camerata orchestra, who were hidden behind a screen throughout most of the show.
Favourites like 'The Starfish' and 'For Today I Am a Boy' were complimented by a cover of 'Crazy in Love', with Antony’s heartfelt vocals imbuing the lyrics with a tragedy untapped version of Beyonce's booty-bouncing original. He sounds like a mixture of Donna Summer and Billie Holiday. The sort of act that could appear in a David Lynch film.
In between songs he gazed in wonderment at the pulsing liquefied light show bouncing around him. The futuristic white set, designed by Manchester-born designer Carl Robertshaw, ticked the box marked 'local talent' but at points the intensity of the visual setting overwhelmed Antony’s quavering vulnerability.
Sometimes it seemed arty for art’s sake. Antony picked up a piece of driftwood, continuing the faintly sylvan theme introduced by the silver lady, but for no discernable reason. When he made a unscheduled break to preserve his voice and tell us a story about his love of quartz, it was a relief to hear a reminder of his humanity. Which is, after all, a huge theme of his songs.
When the screen went up to finally reveal Manchester Camerata, Antony relaxed and started dancing. Clearly a man not entirely comfortable in his own skin, he seemed relieved that the focus had shifted to the music, and the show ended on a high. And judging by the two standing ovations, the audience were pretty chuffed as well.
Antony and the Johnsons aren’t crowd pleasers. Their other worldliness is the key to their charm. But with songs that so beautifully and universally address the human condition, you can’t help wondering how many people are unnecessarily put off by their weirdness.
Helen Clifton, Manchester Confidential
Tuesday 7 July, 2009
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