31 March 2008

What is it Maria you cunt face?

I’ve had a profound moment of self-realisation: It all comes down to cunt.

No, I haven’t metamorphosed into a teenage boy (or a 20-, 30-, 40-, 50-, 60-, 70-, 80- or 90- something straight bloke), or made any definitive jump over the sexual preference fence.

I have comedians to thank. Melbourne is full of comedians this month. Securing a spot in the Melbourne International Comedy Festival is quite simple. You register, pay your fee, book your venue, write your show, get people to come along and make sure you comply with the registration clause that insists you use the word 'cunt' at least once in your act.

There’s a disproportional amount of power in that short word. Having seen some successful  and some utters in the last week, I now know how I really judge people.

It’s quite simple really. No longer do I have to analyse their political opinions, assess their film knowledge, ascertain their favourite Buffy character or test their ability to tell a Barossa semillon from a McLaren Vale wooded chardonnay.

If someone can and does use the word well – I like them. If they use the word offensively, ignorantly or unwisely – I don’t want to share an oakey white with them as we watch progressive teen dramas (or Deadwood).

In my formative years, I never used "the c word", despite my propensity to embrace expressive language. (Family legend tells that I told my aunt to fuck off when I was two.) However, I disliked anyone who said "that word" or even thought it. That word was as offensive and as poof, fag, dyke or nigger.

In a very few years we have seen words move from heinous to powerful statements to descriptive. You can’t demean someone by calling them the name they call themselves. (I’ve even come around to calling myself a chick.) Certainly, some people still use these words to offend – but I don’t like them.

Does this reclaiming of cunt mean I’m happy with hearing a man refer to his female companion as, “that bloody cunt”? Of course not.

Calling someone a cunt is still regularly viewed as the most disgusting, vile, horrendous, offensive thing you can name. I don’t think cunts (or cocks) are intrinsically offensive. Calling someone a cock can be friendly ribbing. It’s a bit naughty, but you can always tone it down to dick, knob, prick or, as Hugh Grant so eloquently said in Four Weddings and a Funeral, a total penis.

Some use cunt because of its taboo nature (it is the naughtiest of the naughty words). There are people who call men cunts to ensure they know they are so much worse than mere pricks and call women cunts to remind them how worthless we are.

Others use cunt superbly. They understand that the word can be laced with irony or power and it’s clear that they do indeed admire, respect and love cunts.

I try to be gender specific in my genital based insults. Women are cunts; men are cocks, pricks, dicks, knobs or total penises. Although, now that I think about it, I can’t remember actually calling a woman a cunt. I may have reclaimed it, but it can still cause undue offence. I tend to stick to gender-neutral insults. Poo brain covers most situations and everyone has an arsehole.

Cunts and sex
(If you found this page googling – you’re probably disappointed. You can stop looking for the link to the page with pictures.)

I don’t have a pussy, a fanny, a love mound, a honey pot or sex bits (an ex of mine used that one - at least it was gender neutral). Depending on the context, I have a vagina, a clitoris, a labia (majora and minora) – or a cunt.

“My meerkat would really like to play with your pussy.” There is no male equivalent of pussy. If men talked about their cute little hamster or wanted us to stroke their guinea pig, I’d probably think differently.

There is something about cock and pussy that doesn’t work. One implies power, the other passivity. (And why don’t we have hens or chooks?) Cock and cunt are strong, active (and interactive) words.

I’m not saying we should all be screaming “cunt” in our intimate moments. There isn’t always the need to be that verbally specific. I use it because I don’t like the alternatives (any suggestions are welcome). If you refer to my pussy – I assume that the cat is on the bed. And what type of sicko wants to eat a cat?

I don’t go round throwing “cunt” into conversations willy-nilly, but when the time is right – I no longer blush and say it with pride. If I hear you saying it to cause offence or to degrade - I think you’re a poo brain.

30 March 2008

Reuben Krum’s Naughty Show

Reuben Krum’s Naughty Show

29 March 2008
Northcote Town Hall

I like my singers vocally strong, my boys pretty, my humour black, my content complex and my cabaret obscene. Reuben Krum’s Naughty Show ticked my boxes – and made me laugh ‘til it hurt.

Racism, paedophilia, Nazism, dead puppies, the cultural significance of coming in a girl’s mouth and homespun Aussie musicals are not the safest of material to play with. Humour is a powerful force to expose the real absurdities and obscenities in our lives. But you really have to do it well – otherwise it just reinforces the ridiculous opinions you are trying to satirise.

There are many comedians in this laugh fest presenting naughty material and controversial content. Their jokes are good, but audiences stare blankly back. I’ve heard more than one complaint that the people-choosing-to-spend-their-hard-earned-money-to-see-shows are stupid, conservative and don’t have a sense of humour. Perhaps it’s because the jokes don’t work? Many fail to work though their own implications and the writers haven’t thoroughly researched the topic.

The content in Reuben Krum’s Naughty Show is as fearlessly naughty as it comes. What makes it stand out is the detail, the intelligence and the knowledge behind every joke. His Jew jokes are as complex as his Nazi jokes. (I’m alternately humming “I Think You’re a Nazi, Baby” and “What I Like about Jews”.) He may the first person who make me laugh hysterically at an Azaria Chamberlain joke (and when I say joke – I mean a complete musical), instead of wanting to gaff their mouth shut.

Who would have thought that a young, gay Jewish cabaret performer would exemplify my opinion about “cunt” (if you missed my Make Deadshits History review,  I wasn’t fond of the language used in the show). Krum opens with a cunt joke and proceeds to break down the taboos surrounding “obscene” language. He uses the irony-laced cunt, the reclaiming cunt, and the divinely non-misogynistic cunt and throws in vagina, labia and clitoris. Not only does he understand the complexity of the word – he knows more about the complexity of a physical cunt than many a lad.

It’s not our language that’s obscene – it’s the racism, the hate crimes, the ignorance, the bigotry, the violence (and some of those homespun Aussie musicals).

And he sings and prances about it. This is a singing, dancing, gold-brocade cabaret show. Krum rises above the pack in all respects. His likable persona engages even the most cynical; he uses minimal theatrics to maximum effect and is accompanied perfectly by pianist Ben Kiley.

Reuben Krum’s Naughty Show is obscenely intelligent, beautifully filthy, and rib-cracking funny. See it.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com

Roger and Grace and Deadshits

The Ballad of Roger and Grace
Health Franklin’s Chopper in Make Deadshits History

27 March 2008
26 March 2008
Bosco Theatre, Federation Square
Umbrella Revolution, Federation Square

The sublime to the ridiculous is a cliché I’d prefer to avoid, but 24 hours at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival took me to such extremes. I experienced the most perfect, poignant and beautiful and the most dull, ignorant and offensive.

There is nothing ostensibly remarkable about The Ballad of Roger and Grace. Two unassuming blokes sit on two chairs. One reads us a story and the other plays his guitar and sings us some songs. That is all and it is exquisite.

Tell me a story. Tell it simply. Tell it truthfully. Tell it with love. Tell it with care. Tell it with passion. Please make sure that your mastery of language and structure is on par with the likes of Wilde and Dickens and you have detailed map of the human psyche.

Daniel Kitson tells us a story – in fact the greatest love story ever told. Trying to describe the unique perfection of this story will only do it an injustice. The journey is profound and epic, visiting unexpected places, emotions and dreams. I want to read Daniel Kitson. He is a damn fine stand up comedian and a mighty fine storyteller, but I also want to snuggle up at night with a tome of his words.

Gavin Osborn sits on the other chair and tells his story trough song. Original and archetypal images of young love fill our minds, as he gently finds the profound in the mundane and the heroic in the ordinary. The song cycle contrasts and supports Daniel’s prose and they come together to create moments of pure theatrical bliss.

Being part of the laughing festival, this is a funny show. The ballad produces the kind of laughter that warms your heart and awakens your soul, as it that lets you cry and makes you want to entwine fingers with someone you love.

Daniel Kitson and Gavin Osborn created The Ballad of Roger and Grace for an open-air dusk performance in London. Midnight performances followed at the Edinburgh Fringe and it has quietly accompanied Kitson’s Australian tour of The Impotent Fury of the Privileged.

I was lucky to catch the last Melbourne performance. Kitson said it might be last time they perform it. Please don’t be so. There are so many people out there who love theatre, who love music, who love stories or just plain love – they all deserve to experience something so wonderful.

The night before Roger and Grace restored my faith in theatre, love and stories, I saw Health Franklin’s Chopper in Make Deadshits History.

Chopper Reid himself isn’t keen on Franklin’s character. Never thought I’d be saying this, but I’m on Chopper’s side.

I’m going to give Franklin full benefit of the doubt here. I’m pretty sure he’s going for satire. I think he’s trying to point out that the likes of Mr Reid are not worthy role models and that violence, rapey rapey (his sweet words) and personal terror are not good. There is some very clever writing hidden among the fucking jokes. I think the concept of making deadshits history is very funny, but disappointed that he had to explain the joke in detail to the audience. I laughed at the Bindy Irwin doll that says, “I want a father figure”, but this material could be said by anyone. It wasn’t Chopper specific and this is a Chopper specific show.

I got the impression that Chopper’s audience are laughing with him – not at him. The satire isn’t working – the audience are laughing at the humour inherent in violence and abuse… (Perhaps I just don’t like the people who pay to see this character.)

Franklin’s Chopper is a naughty, chubby, cuddly teddy bear with a moustache and glasses. He isn’t dangerous or threatening and fails to represent anything near the level of violence and hatred that Mr Reid embodies. This Chopper seems like a nice bloke and I don’t understand why. If he were called Barry the Bonza Bogan, the show would be the same. This Chopper is so coy he can’t even say cock.

I believe there is a clause in the Comedy Festival registration agreement that says you will use the word cunt at least once in your show. (Kitson does so in Fury, thus negating the need for it in Ballad.) There’s a disproportional amount of power in that short word. Women are slowly reclaiming that combination of letters, but the cunt issue is still there. Calling someone a cock can be friendly ribbing. It’s a bit naughty, but you can always tone it down to dick. Calling someone a cunt is still regularly viewed as the most disgusting, vile, horrendous, offensive thing you could name. I don’t think cunts are offensive (about half the people in the world have them). There are men and women in this festival who use cunt superbly in their shows. They understand that the word can be laced with irony (or power) and it’s clear that they do indeed admire, respect and love cunts. Chopper doesn’t. He calls his penis his doodle or “whistle whistle”, but he calls a man a fucking cunt if he spits in his beer and in the audience-participation part of the night, he tells a woman to “Say the C word”. He couldn’t even say, “Say cunt”. Perhaps Franklin is trying to show that Chopper is a compulsive masturbator, has a small penis and never seen a vagina that isn’t on the internet or stapled. Unfortunately, the rest of the show doesn’t support this theory. Chopper makes a woman say cunt because it the naughtiest of all the naughty words and fuck just doesn’t cut it anymore.

This is the type of laughter that tears away at other people’s souls and makes your heart feel grey and slimy; as you avoid contact with the person you came with and hope they don’t try to hold your hand.

If you tend to like what I say about shows, I’d recommend giving Deadshits a miss. (I really thought it was poo – crap filled poo, covered with shit.) I’m devastated that you won’t be able to see Ballad – but you can still see the wonderful Daniel Kitson in The Impotent Fury of the Privileged. You can probably see Heath Franklin in the pub (unless the other Chopper gets to him first).

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

Winner - What I Liked in 2008.

Moving Target

Moving Target
Malthouse Theatre, Adelaide Bank Festival of Arts, Sydney Opera House

13 March 2008
Beckett Theatre, CUB Malthouse

Last week I despaired at seeing banality on Melbourne’s professional stages and began to wonder if I was being too harsh. Last night I saw Moving Target at the Malthouse. To Benedict Andrews and everyone involved in the creation of this work – may I say thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.

Moving Target has come to Melbourne after a season at the Adelaide Festival of Arts. They also brought the Adelaide heat wave with them, but this show was worth sitting in a very hot room for two hours. Direction, performance, writing and design blend to create original, moving, addictive theatre.
The final script is a melding of Marius Von Mayenburg’s words (ably translated by Maja Zade) with an improvised ensemble rehearsal process. What seems chaotic and spontaneous is structured intricately and intelligently to build tension and gradually reveal story and character. The language gives us incredible images like a stubble-covered palm, a half-eaten bird and a green package that is never on the stage, but we never stop seeing it. The final scenes are all exposition. In the show-don’t-tell world of visual story telling, this isn’t recommended, but in the hands of such a team – all I can say is WOW. And this is regardless of content; which is as stunning as its telling. Children and terrorism are highly emotive subjects. This story embraces arch types, avoids clichés and lets its audience feel every genuine emotion.

The ensemble of Alison Bell, Julie Forsyth, Rita Kalnejais, Robert Menzies, Hamish Michael and Matthew Whittet are perfectly cast. It’s a tough job to get the balance right in this show. It takes exceptional skill and craft to make well-rehearsed and detailed staging look random and improvised, let alone to reveal complex characters from what initially appears to be the “real” actors on the stage. All worked as an ensemble, but I have to say that Alison’s subtlety was beautifully powerful and Hamish could pitch his performance just a squidge lower.

All elements of the design fuse to tell this story. The unexpected brilliance of Robert Cousins’ set becomes apparent as the hide and seek games begin. Fiona Crombie’s costumes look like a quick grab from the op shop, but show us the core of these characters. Performer Hamish Michael also designed the sound. The introduction of amplified sound and noise mirrors and supports every moment on the stage. Finally, there is Paul Jackson’s lighting. His Malthouse designs are consistently excellent, but this is sublime. The clean white, the coloured shadows, the transformation to black and white and the seconds of red show the emotion of this story. It is the best lighting I’ve seen since Robert Wilson was last in town.

This whole box of irresistible goodness was brought together by director Benedict Andrews. What an original and powerful theatrical voice. He uses the uniqueness of theatre to tell a story that burrows into the hearts and souls of its audience. The pacing is superb and the release genuinely cathartic. Sometimes the humour and gag were played too hard. The hoodie joke was very, very funny, but it took us away from the world on that stage and reminded us that we were watching an actor on a stage. Even if it’s the best joke ever seen – if it distracts from the story telling, it isn’t worth it.

Audiences deserve to see original, cliché free, astonishing theatre on our main stages. Malthouse’s focus on ensemble creation and original voices is proving that we don’t have to settle for boring. Moving Target might not instantly engage or move you – just go with the journey and you may be amazed where you end up.

This review originally appeared on AussieThearte.com.

29 March 2008

Kill the Wolf

Kill the Wolf
29 March 2008
Black Box, The Arts Centre 

9minds is one of the many fabulous independent theatre companies hidden in Melbourne.  Kill the Wolf is a script that deserves to be seen and admired. I wish more people had the chance.

It’s hard to get an audience when you’re competing against the Comedy Festival and your limited resources are fully dedicated to making good theatre. Sometimes it’s frustrating to work in a creative world where only a handful of people witness beautiful works of art.

I saw 9minds original workshop production of Kill the Wolf at Dantes last year. I was curious to see how it worked in a bigger space and what changes were made. The cuts and changes work well. The structure and arcs are tighter and we were not as distracted by Rose.  Thank goodness venues like Dantes support new scripts. Like any work of art, plays need an audience’s reaction to develop.

Tim Nolan’s writing ably reveals relationships and characters, blends exposition with action, balances content with drama, and takes us to unexpected emotional places. It’s well structured, authentic, original, emotional, skilled writing. What more can we ask for? There is something missing in the transition to the final act revelation and climax. The pace falls slightly and maybe the coach needs to be foreshadowed more. The tennis ball was good, but not enough to make the audience go – Ohh.

Lee Mason, Chris Bunworth and Marcella Russo all deliver consistent outstanding performances. Each creates empathy, without ever making us feel sorry for or their uniquely flawed characters. Lucy Freeman’s direction is atmospheric. She ably blends the theatrical with the naturalistic, creating a work that grabs your attention and sneaks up on you emotionally.

This is terrific theatre. Keep an eye on this company; I’m sure there are even better things to come.

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com

22 March 2008


Umbrella Revolution, Federation Square 
22 March 2008

Laughapoolooza is a showcase of musical comedians (or comical musicians) appearing at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. In its fourth year, the likes of the wonderful Tim Minchin, Tripod and Sista She have appeared. This year’s “best of” aren’t quite of that standard, but still worthy of a chuckle or two.

These “best of” gigs can be quite difficult for audience and performers. With very limited stage time, it’s vital to have sharp and strong material that is going to grab your audience immediately (and try to convince them to come to your show). The whole night hangs off the likeability and skill of the host. This person warms the audience up and gets them ready to love everyone on that stage. The Bedroom Philosopher got the gig this week.

I last saw the Philosopher in 2006 and was looking forward to seeing how his act had matured and changed. It hasn’t. The character continues to be unclear, inconsistent and confusing. There seems to be continual conflict between the character and the performer. The result is frustrating and at times boring. What is even more frustrating is that there is some terrific, funny, witty, original writing in the Philosopher’s material, but the good stuff is lost in the character confusion. There is also the issue of blaming the audience if they don’t laugh. These people have paid to see you – they want to cack themselves laughing. They don’t have to patronise you with polite fake laughs if they’re not amused. I felt that there was little preparation done for this particular gig. When you have admitted that the material in one song was so old that it failed, it might be a lesson in abandoning the stale and creating something new. There are too many great comedians (and hosts) in town right now to accept someone who hasn’t prepared. I began to wonder if he enjoys being on the stage? Because it came across like he was doing the show just so he could go out drinking afterwards.  

Sammy J works with a keyboard and has a juice box prop (juice boxes are always funny). Sammy is appealing and with some more experience and a tightening up of his work, I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of him. In his song, Britney Spears turns up at his door in answer to the letter he sent her in 1999 as a horny 16 year old.  Great concept, super start – then along came Germaine Greer. The Germaine material was based on a limited and, frankly, ridiculous stereotype of an angry feminist. We have begun to accept the concept that men and women are equal, so if you’re going to do angry feminist material, you really, really, really have to understand what you are talking about. The line between satire and offence (or ignorance) is slim. (Check out the incredible Daniel Kitson to see this line balanced brilliantly.) Sammy’s joke would have worked if it ended when Germaine grabbed his dick. Leaving a conclusion up to the audience's imaginations can make it much funnier.

Smart Casual are a duo from NSW. I’d really like to see their show after their short set. They understood character, were well rehearsed, worked with the audience and know the genres they are satirising. Their ditty about not leaving your kids with Britney Spears was very cute and the Eric Clapton verse may be my favourite joke of the festival (even if big chunks of the audience didn’t get it). Perhaps a couple of chords from the very famous song would jog memories.

The Axis of Awesome are a trio of rock geeks on the road to somewhere good. Birdplane may not be the greatest comedy rock anthem ever, but it wasn’t half-bad. Their medley of every great pop song that only uses four chords was wonderful and any Ah Ha reference is worth some brownie points.

Pappy’s Fun Club are a foursome from the UK. These likeable lads clearly had a lot of fun on the stage. There was obvious intelligence behind their jokes, but they need to work on getting in late and leaving early. Don’t turn good jokes into extended sketches.

Geraldine Quinn is consistently damn fine and proves how experience does improve performances. She only did one song though – which affirmed her message, “the world’s fucked, they’re all cunts and no one cares.”

Tom Basden recently won Best Newcomer Award Winner at Edinburgh Fringe. The short sketch version didn’t show us why and I suspect his full show is much better. With rhymes like Budda is gooda than you, there’s surely some fine material to discover.

The next Laughapoolooza is on Friday April 4. It’s a different line up. If you fancy a late night musical laugh-a-thon, it could be a great choice.

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com

20 March 2008

Bogan Furniture Stores

Never did I think I would be wasting brain space, petrol or key strokes on mass-produced ugly furniture. But I needed a bed for my spare room/office/study/place to hide crap.

The mattress on the floor was getting a bit much for visitors and a bed would give me some useful storage space (and another hiding spot for the cat). And I had no intention of spending a serious amount of money. (I’m still proud of my $6 Target jeans after all – and jealous that Amy got a pair for $4.)

IKEA didn’t have what I wanted. Their beds were a bit too expensive and a bit too good for the needs of my spare room. In order to get free parking, I did buy some tea light candles, a pair of kitchen scissors, two green storage boxes, a CD holder and a large blue reusable bag to put them all in.

Plan A having failed, it was time to consult the junk mail.

Option 1: Fantastic Furniture. Those ads, that jingle and catalogues so bright it hurts to look at them. This chain seems to specialise in cheap furniture packages to fill houses in the outer suburbs. Even student share houses find classier stuff on hard rubbish days. This is mock IKEA – but cheaper and ugly. I couldn’t do it.

Option 2: Furniture Galore. Just as cheap, but less gauche. I still don’t want a lounge suite from there, but they looked like they had what I was after.

They did. In fact, I spent about 40 minutes in Furniture Galore. I chose what I wanted – a bed called Kobe. Just like IKEA, they name their furniture. Kobe was black metal, simple and under $100. I was sure he would get along fine with Billy bookcase.

Credit card in hand, all I needed to know was a) will Kobe fit in a 1985 Mazda 323 and b) is he packed in a way that one person can carry him up a narrow staircase. The young sales assistant couldn’t really help me. She was very sweet and polite, but it turns out that she had only been working there two days and she had “no idea” if it would fit in a car because she still “lives at home” and, anyway, her manager was the only person who could actually sell me anything and he was off on a delivery.

I liked Kobe, so I sat on a grey, eight seater, curved, fake-suede lounge suite (which was only slightly more comfortable than it was ugly) and waited. The manager returned and took a phone call. As I was now standing at the sales desk - credit card still in hand – he did finally ask the new kid if “she” was all right. “She” just wanted to give him some money and leave with Kobe. Sadly, managing a furniture store has yet to give this professional any knowledge of the products he sells He couldn’t answer a or b, but I could get it delivered for $55 - next week.

Crappy service will always make me walk and I hope that somehow the Kobes find homes. I did feel that maybe I was naïve about household furniture. Perhaps IKEA had spoiled me over the years with their simple flat packs, detailed tags and staff that put them on the trolley for me. Maybe the mattress on the floor isn’t so bad. Maybe I’ll let guests sleep on my bed and I’ll huddle down on the floor. It seemed easier than trying to get a cheap bed frame.

Being thus distracted - a wrong turn and bad Easter traffic found me heading a different way home. I knew I was going to go perilously close to Fantastic Furniture. My inner martyr couldn’t resist.

Sunglasses on, head down and embarrassingly humming the Fantastic Furniture jingle – in I went.

The store is as bright as their catalogues and you just know the staff have been trained to smile. I suspect their pay is docked if the angle of their mouth ever drops below 180. There was a bed similar to the Kobe, but it was white and about $80 more. Disappointed, I even considered going to Freedom. Then I saw her - Rachel.

She wasn’t as slick as her Swedish counterparts, but she was nicer than Kobe AND she was marked down to from $249 to $99. Nonetheless, my innocent belief that buying cheap furniture was easy had already got me into trouble once today - so I wasn’t confident as I approached one of the smiling people.

Dammit…….Fantastic Furniture is pretty darn good.

This friendly young sales assistant instantly answered a and b for me with a simple Yes – we put them hatchbacks every day and it comes in three separate boxes which are light and easy to carry. So he got my credit card as two men put Rachel in the car for me.

I was in and out of Fantastic Furniture within 10 minutes. I had exactly what I wanted, I wasn’t made to feel a fool, I had a nice chat with a friendly person, I didn’t have to carry anything or pay for delivery and I didn’t buy a blue plastic bag full of things I didn’t really need.

Does this mean I have to stop judging shops by the quality of their advertising jingle?


A couple hours later and Rachel is in her new home. There was an allen key, a plastic bag full of screws and a page of instructions written by a dyslexic monkey – just like IKEA. There wasn’t too much blood and only a bit of swearing as I put her together. And now friends can stay here in comfort – unless they want to sleep comfortably together. Rachel is single.

Bring on the mundane

Ok, it’s clear that I haven’t got into blogging. There’s nothing that is interesting for me to blog about. There are already great theatre blogs (and you can always check out my reviews and opinions on www.AussieTheatre.com), some terrific book blogs and I totally lack any celebrity attributes. So all that’s left is the mundane. I mean, my friends discuss the mundane a lot. Who makes a good latte? What thickness of spaghetti is best for pesto? Who teaches people to drive in Caulfield? Why does chocolate tastes better shaped as a rabbit? These are all rather interesting to me.

So, bring it on. The internet needs something mundane.

12 March 2008

Holding the Man

Holding the Man
12 March 2008
Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse 

Holding the Man has been leaving audience members in floods of tears since its first production in 2006 by Griffin. Return seasons and new venues have let many more join in the cathartic weeping. MTC have brought it to Melbourne.

Holding the Man is playwright Tommy Murphy’s adaptation of Tim Conigrave’s book, published months after Conigrave’s death in 1994. It is a tribute to the love of his partner John Caleo, who died in 1992.

I’m of the age, occupation and social circle that this play targets. The Grim Reaper set my attitude to safe sex, I have friends who lost most of their friends and I sat in an AIDS ward and saw patients treated differently. I remember the AIDS jokes. What does GAY stand for? Got AIDS yet? (I actually feel quite icky putting that in writing.) A bloke walks into a party where a group of his friends are shooting up. “Aren’t you worried about AIDS?” he asks. “Don’t worry”, his mate replies, “We’re wearing condoms.”

I am horrified that people in their teens, twenties and now thirties are complacent about safe sex. If you weren’t there in the 80s – this play may speak volumes to you.

But don’t worry; it isn’t a safe sex agitprop piece. Holding the Man is a lovingly told biography and ultimately a love story. The context is specific, but the emotion and journey are universal.

The context and emotion are inseparable though. John and Tim would have lead different lives if they hadn’t been born in 1959 and brought up in Melbourne. They barrack for Essendon, snogged in the Menzies Building at Monash Uni, Phoebe (the constant hag) appears as Dorothy in a shopping mall Wizard of Oz, Supertramp rocked, pants were high and hair was big. And people who lived in this world of hags and soft rock anthems began to get very sick and die.

The 80s allows for a lot of comedy, but it also lets us see a time where fear and misunderstanding dominated. When John is in remission from his cancer, but is still very ill from AIDS, he says that the cards will stop.  He got get-well cards for cancer, but not for AIDS.

We see one death on the stage. I did question the use of puppets in Act 1, but this choice become clear. If you have ever seen a person dying from a terminal disease, you know that no healthy person can look that emaciated and that ill. A puppet replaces the actor for his last moments. This puppet is almost unrecognizable. Grey skin tries to cover a skeleton, eyes look huge and we hear the laboured breathing of the actor standing next to him. This scene is stunning. Stunning in its reality, in its emotion and in its theatricality.

If Holding the Man were a piece of fiction, different dramatic choices would be made. I really liked how Murphy maintained Conigrave’s voice, but perhaps his desire to present a loving and authentic tribute may have inhibited some choices. Dramatically, the work could benefit from more conflict, more shades of grey and some more negative characters. Everyone was so nice. At times it felt a bit like watching Home and Agay. I really liked the honesty in presenting the more negative side of Tim, such as him telling his parents about his HIV the week of his sister’s wedding. From a purely dramatic point of view, I think more of this kind of choice and action would ultimately benefit the stage story.

I also found the presentation of the women characters quite distracting and ultimately disturbing. Mothers, friends, hags and the token lesbian appeared to be the clowns in the piece. There were screaming harpies and the one sympathetic mother was played in drag. Some of the performances were very funny, but I felt that there were too many negative, and unbelievable, stereotypes.

At the end of the night, I wasn’t among the weeping.  But whether it moves you or not, Holding the Man continues to prove how important, and how satisfying, it is to see our own voices, places and times on our stages. I really look forward to seeing future productions and interpretations.

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com

December 2012: I finally read the book.
It's lovely and honest and the women are just people. I really enjoyed it; as much as an incredibly sad read can be enjoyed. For anyone who wasn't around at the time or just didn't understand the impact HIV/AIDS, give it a read.

01 March 2008

Film review: Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street 

Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street will continue to upset some musical theatre purists, but they can wait for live productions. This Sweeney maintains the integrity of the stage version while telling the story with a tension and darkness rarely captured live.

Adaptation from stage to screen is a dangerous art, as it simply may not be possible to recreate the complexity and impact of a live production on film. Many incredible examples of musical theatre have made dull films (A Chorus Line and Rent come immediately to mind), but others have been translated to the screen in ways that almost re-created the genre. Fosse did it in Cabaret and Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

When future theatrical historians dissect 20th Century American Musical Theatre, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd will rarely be ignored. Premiering on Broadway in 1979, it tells the story a barber who kills his customers and his landlady who uses the bodies to make meat pies. The show fuses comedy with a classical tragic structure and tells the story through the eyes of a modern chorus.

So how does Burton tell this tale? Firstly, he removes the chorus. This instantly means the loss of some of the most memorable music. Sadly, filmgoers may never hum the “The Ballad of Sweeny Todd”, but there is no place for a chorus in this film.  It’s no longer a story about many; it’s the story of Benjamin Barker (aka Sweeney Todd).

We see London from Todd’s perspective. The CGI city is magnificently grey and miserable. Action and characters are viewed through distorted windows or reflected in broken mirrors and shining blades. Todd is unable to see his world (or himself) clearly, until the inevitable moment when it’s too late.

Burton supports this with a stunning use of colour and light. The symbolism is obvious, but the greys and sepias of Sweeney’s world compared to the bright floral of Benjamin’s past show more than any dialogue could manage. Then there’s red – lots of red. (It may be the best use of red on a screen since Spielberg used a little red coat in Shindler’s List.) The squeamish be warned – there’s blood in this film. Blood that oozes, drips, spurts and gushes life, death, love and hope.

Burton favourites Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter head the cast. Depp’s Todd is enticing and I cannot imagine a better choice. He creates a sympathy, and even empathy, for a character who we still clearly see as a monster, but feel every moment of his pain.

The casting of Bonham Carter as pie maker Mrs Lovett has split opinions. In musicals people sing. Burton’s principal cast are not singers, but the roughness in some of the voices adds an unexpected authenticity to their characters. Bonham Carter is clearly not a singer. Hearing “Worst Pies in London” sung by one of the worst singing voices around is deliciously ironic, but somewhat distracting. Marni Nixon made us believe that Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood and Audrey Hepburn could sing, so I have to wonder why there wasn’t some dubbing to support Bonham Carter’s voice. Even on the stage, it’s common for a homely chorus member to stand in the wings ensuring that the ingénue’s high C is perfect.

Vocal ability aside, Mrs Lovett is traditionally played by a more mature singer, who is embracing comic roles. (Angela Lansbury was the first Mrs Lovett.) Bonham Carter’s younger Lovett was surprising. However, her performance has brought such a unique depth and poignancy to the character, that Mrs Lovett may never be cast in the same way again.  She is no longer the comic sidekick. Her obsession with Todd is as distorted as his need for vengeance but she make’s their love seem feasible. There are moments when we hope that their murderous rampage can lead to them living happily by the sea.

It’s an odd thing to believe a world where people regularly burst into song, yet musicals can tell the most epic and tragic stories so effectively. Perhaps it is because music can reach ours souls instantly. Words have to go though our brain first. Images are similar – they show us the emotion and feeling, without the need for words. Buton’s film combines the visual and aural with some fine structuring to create an emotionally rewarding film that I’ve already gone back to see again.