Postcard from Perth 40
Fringe World Week 2: Absolutely, La Soirée, Sex Idiot, Fake It Till You Make It, Stag/Fag, Yoshi’s Castle, The Worst of Scottie
It’s been another big week out and about at Fringe World. The Perth weather’s been uncharacteristically steamy and even stormy, with lightning strikes and bushfires south of the city, but none of this seems to have seriously impacted on Fringe bookings, which are at capacity for many shows.
Last weekend kicked off for me on Friday night with three shows: none of them part of the handpicked Blue Room/PICA Summer Nights season or in conventional theatre spaces. In fact two of them were in circus tents and/or circus-related in content. As such they were more representative of the bulk of the Fringe, which is broadly comedy/cabaret/burlesque rather than theatre narrowly speaking, and as such appeals to a broader audience looking for entertainment rather than (but not excluding) art.
Absolutely is a one-man storytelling show by local actor Alan Girod. Last week it was playing upstairs at new live-gig bar-venue Jimmy’s Den in the throbbing heart of James St; this week it’s out at Midland Workshops. Despite the context and format (performer onstage with mic, audience on the floor on chairs or bar-stools grouped around tables) it’s more narratively crafted and emotionally varied than stand-up comedy, although it certainly delivered plenty of laughs the night I was there. Alan’s a very endearing (and very tall) performer with big blue eyes, a winning smile and an air of holy innocence. It’s the tale of a six-foot-nine-inch boy growing up in suburban Perth, finding his way through school and adolescence, discovering theatre while teaching in the wheatbelt, falling in love, hitting the wall professionally, taking the plunge to make his own work and go on tour, and finally landing a gig as a clown-giant with Cirque de Soleil. It’s a big story (no pun intended) but Alan delivers it with a light touch and effortlessly engages the audience regardless of their social or professional background. The underlying message (follow your heart) is an easy sell; if anything I wanted a little more of the difficulty, darkness and dramatic conflict which I’m certain is lurking beneath Alan’s sunny surface; but he’s a hugely gifted storyteller and it’s a unique story.
After Absolutely I wended my way up James St through the gathering Friday night crowds to the Pleasure Gardens and Palais des Glaces Spiegeltent for La Soirée. As anyone who’s ever had the good fortune of entering a Spiegeltent knows, they’re magnificent venues decorated with mirrors, wood panelling and stained glass, and conjure up a vanished Victorian vaudeville world. They’re also surprisingly intimate and effective venues for small-scale spectacular live performance, and the outside world quickly vanishes once you’re inside. In short: it was the perfect setting for La Soiree, a crowd-pleasing, jaw-dropping, sizzlingly sexy and transgressive circus based in the UK but featuring acts from around the world which has been doing the international rounds for some years now, including every other capital city except Perth.
Initially I was a little resistant as I always have been to the blandishments of the form and its inherently cajoling nature. However I was soon swayed and swept along – not simply by the prodigous physical skills and attributes of the performers, but by the sophistication and wit of their stage personae and the underlying celebration of diversity and indeed polymorphous perversity that took a very mainstream Perth audience along for the ride. The biggest crowd pleaser was probably the solo aerial act featuring a young topless German man in tight jeans and a bathtub full of water. My own personal favourites were the stripease act involving a disappearing (and reappearing) hanky; the manically hypersexual juggling clown (whose tools of trade progressed to a lethal combo of wig, dress, heels and knives drawn straight from De Palma’s Dressed To Kill); and a masochisic limb-dislocating Swedish contortionist and acrobat who had my companion (a dancer) covering her face and begging me to tell her when it was over.
After this extravaganza we made our way back down an increasingly alcohol-soaked James St to the pop-up Circus Theatre in the Cultural Centre opposite Perth Station. London-based performance artist Bryony Kimmings has two shows at Fringe World: Sex Idiot and Fake It Till You Make It (which I saw a few nights later at PICA). Sex Idiot is a one-woman odyssey based on a diagnosis of chlamydia which inspired Bryony to get in touch with all the men she’d slept with over the years and then put together a show based on the experience. Fake It is jointly created and performed by Bryony and her partner Tim, an account manager at an advertising firm who suffers from clinically diagnosed depression; the show is about his illness and their relationship. All this might sound dreary but Kimmings presents her material using song-and-dance routines, stand-up comedy, impro, audience participation, dressing-up, masks, physical and object theatre, games and activities, using a messy DIY aesthetic that’s reminiscent of English pantomime and kid’s TV (think Playschool for the physically, emotionally, socially or politically handicapped).
I have to admit I found both shows hard to take even if their intentions were admirable (and many in the audience were clearly captivated). To make a critical confession: there’s something about the aesthetics, politics and perhaps even ethics of ‘confessional theatre’ that I struggle with (though see my review of The Worst of Scottee below for a counter-example that won me over). As with the theatre of identity politics discussed and reviewed in my previous Postcard from Sydney (in particular Force Majeure’s dance work for fat people, Nothing to Lose), for me there’s something reductive about the ‘treatment’ (so to speak) of STD’s, depression or obesity purely in terms of social stigma and its overcoming. While important in itself this approach doesn’t address underlying causes and reduces individual people to being ‘cases’ defined solely in terms of their group identity. This reductiveness is reinforced by an aesthetic that presents itself as cool or ‘ironic’ but is actually the opposite, since it remains caught in what feels like a state of unresolved anger that can’t find any outlet except by being ‘acted out’. In fact Bryony asserts in Fake It that she’s inspired to make work by ‘feeling angry about something’. The question is: what exactly is she angry about, and why? The fact that people get sick, or the way they are treated, or both, or neither? I wasn’t quite sure. The work poses as being politically active, but its aims don’t seem clear – except perhaps simply to ‘talk about things’. However, as with ‘consciousness-raising’ campaigns like ABC’s recent ‘Mental Health Week’, I’m not convinced that simply ‘talking about things’ is necessarily helpful in itself – in fact it can even be self-reinforcing. In short: changing things isn’t just about ‘consciousness’. That’s why there’s a role for therapy and politics (neither of which is just about talking or acting out) if we really want things to change. Conversely (and this is controversial) perhaps art isn’t about changing things at all – at least, not in ‘the real world’ – except in the imagination (and the reality of our artistic practice).
To be sure, many in the audience clearly loved both shows. Personally I found Fake It more satisfying, perhaps because it was about a relationship between two people onstage, and ultimately a love story. There’s a heart-rending sequence when Tim plays the guitar and sings about one of his ‘under the duvet days’ while Briony holds the microphone and watches him with tears streaming down her face, which I won’t easily forget because was irreducably personal and real: a glimpse of what confessional theatre can be when it cuts through the pretence of both conventional drama and pantomime.
Also at PICA on Tuesday night before Fake It Till You Make It I saw Fag/Stag, one of five works in this year’s Fringe World by prolific Perth indie company The Last Great Hunt. Fag/Stag is co-written, co-directed and co-performed by Chris Isaacs and Jeffrey Jay Fowler, two multi-skilled and multi-platform artists whose work ethic and artistic personalities are typical of Perth as a place where there’s plenty of space to be filled, literally and creatively. In terms of content Fag/Stag is also distinctively about Perth: in particular about being young men (gay or straight) and best mates in a small town where everyone is two degrees of separation from everyone else.
The interweaving dual-monologue form reminded me of the work of Brian Friel (particularly Molly Sweeney) in its forensic capacity to provide contrasting perspectives and generate drama without necessarily involving direct action onstage. In a sense like Chris’s previous play for Fringe World and Black Swan State Theatre Company Flood (reviewed at length in a Postcard last year) Fag/Stag is a kind of testimonial or even proto-courtroom drama in which things continually threaten to spill over into the confession of an actual crime. Fag/Stag is in my view much more successful than the former play because it sticks firmly to a microscopic focus on lived experience, almost imperceptibly shifting into a fictional register without losing its grounding in authenticity. Chris’s background in improvisation gives his writing and performance a wonderful lack of affectation; and this serves as an effective foil for Jeffrey’s slightly more constructed and cutting persona (there’s even a touch of Alan Rickman about him) which in turn opens up to reveal a touchingly vulnerability I hadn’t seen before in his work as a writer or performer.
I found Fag/Stag easily the most slick and polished show I’ve seen so far at Fringe (with the exception of La Soirée, which is hardly qualifies as a ‘fringe’ show given its resources and pedigree). Beneath its deceptively simple and affable surface, it’s also a work of real depth, complexity and glimpses of hidden darkness. Performances and writing are artfully casual yet carefully calculated to keep things bubbling along and then deliver a narrative or character-driven punch when it counts. In particular, there’s an underlying exploration of low self-esteem on the part of both characters, gay and straight, which perhaps binds them just as surely as their evident mutual love and compassion. If anything, I felt the script skirted around one or two holes and perhaps avoided some of its own implications (for example the marks of self-harm one of the friends unexpectedly glimpses on his mate’s back but never asks him about) and was perhaps one draft short of completion; but I found the writing itself superb, and the performances beyond reproach in terms of timing, judgement and walking that fine line between artifice and truth. If I were in the habit of giving out Fringe Awards, this would be my first candidate.
The following night I met up with my daughter and saw my second Last Great Hunt fringe entry, Yoshi’s Castle, written and devised by Gita Bezard and performed by Arielle Gray and Adriane Daff at pop-up venue The Stables in the Cultural Centre. It’s too simple to say that Yoshi is the girl-power counterpart to the boy’s-own-adventure of Fag/Stag; but I’ll say it anyway. Arielle and Adriane play Tilly and Yoshi, half-sisters meeting for the first time after their father’s death to sort out the spoils. Tilly is a nurse, neat, precise, pendantic, responsible, and into historical fiction, costume drama, Jane Austen and Henry VIII’s wives; Yoshi creates video games, her own reality and identity, is into Japanese pop culture and lives in Tokyo. Interestingly they both appear to be single, fixated on their father and his legacy; unlike the wives of Henry VIII, the girls' mothers barely rate a mention. ‘Sisterhood’ here is both literal and political: it’s a culture war between notions of femininity as much as a psychological one between two siblings.
In fact the narrative framework of Yoshi feels as culturally constructed as a video game itself; and this effect is heightened by the bright and breezy playing style and staging, which features cartoon-like costumes, synchronised dance routines, a synthesized score and a lively screen-backdrop filled with digitally animated projections in hyper-saturated colours. In fact it struck me while watching Yoshi that for the first time this Fringe I was watching ‘a play’: that is to say, something capable of multiple if not infinite alternative stage-interpretations (I found myself imagining a less illustrative design and performance-style), but essentially consisting of dialogue between characters in conflict engaged in psychological transactions and sorting stuff out; and like so many plays in the history of theatre, essentially about the dynamics of families.
It’s a neat script and production, and the performances sparkle, but I couldn’t help feeling that something was being evaded in the relentless use of the pop-culture aesthetic. It’s as if the sense that we’re all ‘in the know’ somehow precludes us from experiencing anything directly – or indeed anything new. Then again, perhaps I’m just an old-fashioned, Jane Austen kind of guy.
After Yoshi’s Castle we went back up James St (quieter on a Wednesday night) to Perth’s iconic gay and lesbian nightclub Connections to see The Worst of Scottee, a performance work by the eponymous London-based queer artist, writer, DJ and party legend, created in collaboration with UK director and writer Chris Goode. In fact my daughter had seen Scottee himself in club mode a few nights earlier hosting the all-night Horsemeat Disco here at Connie’s, where she said he cut an intimidating figure. Tonight he was just the opposite: generous, vulnerable and even fragile as he bared his soul.
The Worst of Scottie is confessional theatre at its best. In fact a sense of ritual confession is evoked and parodied by the set: a photo-booth inside which the performer sits in profile, sometimes visible and sometimes curtained, while talking, singing, doing stuff and manipulating his appearance for the camera; meanwhile an image of his face looks out at us from a screen on the outside wall of the booth. Catholic rite, psychoanalytic session, video-blog – all are simultaneously evoked in this ambiguous libidinal apparatus and mechanism of surveillance.
Essentially it’s a monologue about growing up on a London housing estate, compulsive lying, compulsive eating, coming out, having a breakdown and – in a final gruelling act of anamnesis – being arrested and accused of a sex crime at thirteen years of age. The sophistication of the design, however, and the use of clowning, disguise, persona and camp all take the show into a meta-theatrical realm that harks back to Genet, Wilde, Shakespeare’s gender-comedies and the Bacchae of Euripides; and the staging at Connie’s only added another layer of real-life and stage-irony. The overall effect was by turns hilarious, unsettling, beautiful and devastating.
Afterwards my daughter and I both had an aperol spritz at the bar and talked about the revival of homophobia in the age of mass-media saturation about paedophilia. This was theatre that didn’t just talk about things, or act them out, but staged them.
Humph’s Postcards from Perth Fringe World continue next week. His final Postcard from the Australian Theatre Forum in Sydney will be posted on Tuesday.