Melbourne's Midsumma cabaret culture

Jonathan Marshall

Moira Finucane

Moira Finucane

Like the feast day after which it is named, the Midsumma festival is an unruly, hedonistic celebration, including events as different as The Festival Jack-off and the launch of Andy Quan’s Calendar Boy. Cabaret, monologue and deferred biography provided the 3 main trends that the arts events engaged with. Cabaret has a long association with queer aesthetics, the self-conscious performance of gender, identity and sexual allure offering a vision of society beyond the straight world. One must nevertheless question the inclusion within the festival of relatively ‘straight’ cabaret like Hell in a Handbag or the New Age lecture Imagining the Pleiades (unlike the pataphysical, stream-of-consciousness cabaret of the same month, Dilapidated Diva). Even Warhol’s dry, ironic persona was more dangerously camp than some Midsumma works.

Though ostensively a para-literary event, the Word is Out program had a cabaret ambience too. Writers recited texts in some cases written for performance in a relaxed manner, amongst the barely theatrical surrounds of a former Trades Hall meeting room. Love is the Cause for example included Richard Watts, schooled in the spoken-word scene which thrives amongst the back rooms of Melbourne’s pubs and clubs (Watts helped establish the nightclub Queer and Alternative). He has an endearingly rough-and-ready, almost improvised style, employing relatively simple language as he read from dog-eared pages. Kylie Brickhill echoed Watts in her rough comic approach, slamming on her guitar in an unaffected manner as she performed exerpts from her show Pick Me. She was delightfully naff, sending up her past as a young, newly-out lesbian who joined a band to “pull chicks.” Both seemed relatively weak however beside the 2 published authors on the program, a less than ideal juxtaposition of forms and styles.

Merrille Moss recited a tight—albeit slight—published monologue which at once mocked—while covertly celebrating—the indulgent self-pity of a recently dumped young lesbian. Andy Quan’s selections from Calendar Boy on the contrary were rich, expressive passages wrought from the simplest of elements. He employed a relatively unadorned, observational style which kept the emotional content at a certain remove. This proved intensely affective though in his study of the dangers of love, following a character who only barely avoided an abusive relationship. There but for the grace of God go I, seemed to be the message.

This perplexingly moving objectification of the personal was also exhibited in William Yang’s writing. For Yang however this occurs on a scopic level as well. The projected photographs that went with his words possessed an intimacy paradoxically accompanied by a sense of disinterested remove. As Yang himself explained when discussing images of his lovers, or how his camera enabled him to mingle with the lesbian community, the photographic lens offered him a way to get close to these figures while nevertheless remaining apart. Although Yang’s work has often been described as autobiographical, he provides too little information about himself for this to really be true. Friends of Dorothy is only autobiographical inasmuch as Yang’s persona can be described as that of the watcher—engaged yet detached, loving yet coolly documentary.

The most surprising aspect of Friends of Dorothy was how uncertain a speaker Yang is. Although he has been touring slides-and-text for years, he still tends to falter, before quickly picking himself up again. Here audiences once more found themselves in the intriguing, shifting sands of informal cabaret performance.

Melbourne is indeed home to a thriving cabaret scene, spreading from the queer clubs, to swish cafes where slick groups like Combo Fiasco perform, right through to La Mama. Theatre-maker John Bolton has provided a common departure point for the more theatrical manifestations of this form, drawing upon street performance, French clown and Jacques Le Coq. Hell in a Handbag (featuring Bolton-trained Merophie Carr) strongly exhibited the self-deprecating ‘theatre of naff’ style found amongst Bolton’s associates (Four on the Floor, Born in a Taxi, Kate Denborough). Handbag was not the best example of these approaches though. It compared poorly to coincident manifestations, like the more dreamy, melancholy, Calvino-esque ‘tales-of-a-city’ show Sailing on a Sea of Tears. It seems somewhat churlish however to criticise Handbag for its inconsistency given the free-form cabaret format widespread throughout Midsumma overall.

Although Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith produce highly charged, multifaceted works, their projects are characterised by a discipline elsewhere lacking in the festival. Finucane has been performing various characters she devised with director/dramaturg Jackie Smith for nearly 10 years in clubs. Nine were first brought together for The Saucy Cantina in 1999. More performance-art style figures like the Dairy Queen (spraying milk outwards and onto herself in an over-the-top, hyper-sexual game) have become infamous through guest appearances, yet Finucane’s rich, neo-Romantic, Gothic text work is less well known. Her dark, Edward Gorey/Mervyn Peake-style Expressionist melodrama Phantasmagoria (2000) failed to win the attention it deserved. Her Word is Out performances however demonstrated she and Smith have more stories and characters to offer. Their next project—Gothorama—is sure to be extraordinary.

The Smith/Finucane collaboration was the most threatening work within the festival. Sauce-Girl in Saucy Cantina was exemplary in this respect, a fiercely controlled yet minimally twitching woman staring into space as she squeezed a leaking sauce bottle. Her bizarre lust took the logic of gay and lesbian liberation to a frightening level. If all forms of sexual desire should be equally free, then Sauce-Girl represents desire for desire itself, a character who does not need another individual or even a particular fetishistic object. The work of Smith and Finucane is therefore more concerned with the exploration of emotion, desire and ritual behaviour, than with promoting particular sexual identities. Finucane’s characters are typically defined by a fragile beauty, a power and elegance bordering on fragmentation and death. Her Love is the Cause monologue painted a rich yet frigid picture of a deserted, frozen mansion where 2 siblings waited for “him”—presumably their father, but Finucane allowed no certainty here, only deeper mysteries—who bicker and protect each other in equal measure. Finucane delivered the tale with her characteristic tall, cracked, physical grace. It is indeed impossible to imagine Finucane’s works as purely written text, a trait that lifted her above her peers.

Her second Word is Out appearance featured her exuberant Latino-goddess: La Argentina. In Saucy Cantina, Finucane was ritually cleansed before transforming from Sauce-Girl into La Argentina, who described a food-market in which sexualised wares fell over themselves to proclaim her beauty. In Oceans Apart however La Argentina spouted a tale of ludicrous proportions, a rollicking, insane story of life with polar bears, kidnapping and gypsy-pirates. La Argentina is the only unambiguously life-affirming figure in the gallery of Smith and Finucane, a proud woman whose “firm arms” and “heaving bosom” metaphorically embrace the world.

The most suggestive aspect of the Word is Out program was the Auslan interpretation. Signers Lyn Gordon and Tanya Miller imparted a literally palpable sense of drama, offering their own distinctive inflections which undercut the writers’ authority, even as the latter read their texts. Gordon ‘spoke’ with a sense of shrugging melodrama; a rapid rim-shot approach of punctuated physical expression. Miller however had an easy nonchalance. Compared to Gordon, she almost slurred her physical speech. Her movements rolled out, tapering off into thoughtful poses.

These idiosyncratic physical dialects highlighted the tension at the heart of both the readings and authorship itself. One could actually see entire phrases collapsed into single, eloquent, nuanced gestures. Other relatively straightforward words engendered a flurry of physical activity, changing the emphasis of the text. Miller and Gordon dramatised how the meaning and expression of a text changes as it leaves the author. In Word is Out, the quicksands of physical cabaret sucked at the writers’ feet.

Midsumma: Hell in a Handbag, performers/devisors Shirley Billing, Merophie Carr, directors Vanessa Pigrum, Rebecca Hilton, Jan 22-Feb 2; The Saucy Cantina, director/co-creator Jackie Smith, performer/text/deviser Moira Finucane, performer Sandra Pascuzzi, Jan 22-27; 4Play, including Pick Me, performer/deviser Kylie Brickhill, Jan 15-19; Friends of Dorothy, performer/deviser/photography William Yang, Jan 31-Feb 2, Blackbox; Word is Out: curators Crusader Hillis, Rowland Thomson, Auslan interpreters Lyn Gordon, Tanya Miller, Trades Hall, Jan 26; Sailing on a Sea of Tears, performers/devisors Fiona Roake, Jesse Griffin, Terra Paradiso, Jan 29-Feb 15; The Dilapidated Diva + her Tight Three Piece Outfit, performer/deviser Emma Bathgate, director Barry Laing, Dante’s, Melbourne, Feb 7-23

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. 26

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2002