Playing away

Australia’s It’s Queer Up North performers talk to Barbara Karpinski

Filth and frivolity often gets you a long way, and for four cLUB bENT performers, all the way to Great Britain. In May, Azaria Universe, Derek Porter, Dean Walsh and Moira Finucane [directed by Jacqui Smith], travelled to Manchester’s It’s Queer Up North Festival and also to shows in London and Brighton. But how long does overseas fame really last for our home grown talent? Was Queer Up North just a momentary piece of glory before a return home to the bills and banality, or has a real and lasting cultural interchange been established?

Majestic diva, Moira Finucane comments, “The Australian work was very strong. I was proud to be part of an incredibly strong team. The type of work that The Performance Space has taken risks on and promoted internationally is very physical and multilayered…The English work was much more cabaret-ish and verbal.”

There are rumours afoot that some of the British performers will come here for cLUB bENT 97. Can cLUB bENT’s distinctive brand of off-the-wall art forms and askew cultural persuasions become a world-wide affair without losing its experimental edge? According to dancer from the dark side, Derek Porter, “It’s called Queer Up North, but I still found it more mainstream oriented that our queer events. He remarked that some of the British shows deal with ‘pretty run-of-the-mill issues’ like ‘demystifying gay culture, a drag queen’s search for love, a stripper who can lip-synch and sing. I feel some of us went beyond what queer was expected to be.”

Porter’s betrayal of a character’s chaotic change from gender dysmorphic male to cat woman left London audiences in eerie silence. “Although they were hard to tame through some of the performances, there was a sinister silence through Misfit,” he says.

Porter’s work explores the territory of androgyny in a style redolent of German cabaret. “I think transgenderism is still taboo,” says Porter. “Transgender performance is different to drag. We are not popping on a frock and being frivolous.”

Porter alludes to a sense of bleakness in postmodern Manchester, comparing it to post-war Berlin. “Every time I come back from o/s, my desire to be in Sydney is even stronger. The grass always seems to be greener back home each time…There are more opportunities for queer performance here,” he says.

Daddy’s boy, Dean Walsh, has created a new form of drag called “muscular drag”. Wanting to keep his suitcase light, he took to the British stage in nothing but high heels. When he whispers that his heart belongs to “DDDDaddy,” to whom is he speaking? “Daddy to me personally is this strange intangible kind of character,” says Walsh. “He’s not daddy necessarily, he’s not the father. He is a taboo lover.”

What is muscular drag? “You can hold your muscles around your bones”, says Walsh. “It’s almost like dressing the flesh. You can release that and become quite feline…I wanted the male body to be exposed without big throbbing cock…I’m breaking the stereotypical male thing.” Naked, boldly, Walsh goes into a headstand. “You have the male bum being shown, the anus being show, the very vulnerable part of the male body. I’m opening that as wide as I possibly can while I have my thighs held in strong masculinity,” he says.

In Hardware, Walsh moves fluidly between masculine and feminine bodily forms, capturing a realm of lost innocence through his newly created drag form. But some gay British skinheads felt short-changed by its powerful simplicity. “These guys came and saw a show and said to me later, ‘You fucking Australians need to get off your angst ridden arse! What about Priscilla? Where is Priscilla? What are you trying to fucking show us…Wipe that fucking Australian smile off your face. You’ve got a big attitude, haven’t you?’” There was indeed a big expectation amongst a small section of the British gay community for all Australian gays to be glitterama, high camp drag queens.

Azaria Universe, described as a “good-time showgirl drag queen trashy slam silver screen scene buster,” did not make it back home with the rest of the troupe. In a fax from London, she wrote she’s “…been watching shows and performing constantly, which is heavenly.” She has been invited to perform in an old Music Hall, “where drag queen DJs play Suzi Quatro tracks.” Universe describes the British experience as “a strange combination of exhaustion and adrenalin, an awesome performance cocktail.”

A reviewer described “Ms Universe” in Manchester as “sans clothes, pubic hair and some might say, talent.” Finucane says, “That response doesn’t surprise me, because she’s young, she’s beautiful and her work is extremely physical.” Azaria belongs to “another generation”, says Finucane, who do not question their right to “get their gear off in gay abandon.” There is still an out-dated notion that naked women with shaved pubic hair are merely playing to the fantasies of men. When Azaria Universe brings you her love from high upon crudely bandaged stilts, there is passion and power in the air.

Was the satiric tradition of British culture reflected in the queer works? “They’re taking the piss out of their own society even more than we do as Australians,” says Porter. Moira Finucane was enamoured with the intimacy of traditional British theatre. “There is something very celebratory about the old fashioned theatre that contemporary theatre doesn’t do. You are immediately surrounded by a sense of importance and luxury. It’s very intimate and beautiful being part of the audience. The world that those old theatres create is a world in the same way that cLUB bENT creates. It’s very human.”

RealTime issue #14 Aug-Sept 1996 pg. 6

© Barbara Karpinski; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 1996