queering the evil child

john bailey: interview, sisters grimm, little mercy

Ash Flanders, Little Mercy

Ash Flanders, Little Mercy

Ash Flanders, Little Mercy

IN HER ESSENTIAL STUDY OF THE SEXUAL POLITICS OF HOLLYWOOD HORROR, MEN, WOMEN AND CHAINSAWS (1992), THEORIST CAROL J CLOVER ARGUES THAT THE ‘EVIL CHILD’ SUBGENRE—THINK THE EXORCIST, THE OMEN, ROSEMARY’S BABY—IS DRIVEN BY A KIND OF DIALECTIC OF GENDER.

On one side we have the monstrous feminine, hysterical and uncontainable, and on the other a masculinity whose coldness and rigidity is just as problematic. Resolution can only occur when some synthesis of the two is achieved—the patriarch who learns to ‘open up’ and find in himself two sexes symbolically merged into one.

It’s a complex thesis that clearly lends itself to Little Mercy by Melbourne’s Sisters Grimm, soon to open at Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf 2. The horror-comedy queers the evil child narrative in all directions—here the diabolical eight-year-old is played by a woman in her 70s, her terrified mother by a man, and the genre’s own tropes are stretched to breaking point.

But Clover overlooks an important pleasure that distinguishes the figure of the evil child in horror cinema: “it’s one of those rare occasions where the audience actually wants the bad thing to win,” says Ash Flanders, one half of the Sisters. “Isn’t it just like the id? Wouldn’t we all be killing people for their shoes if there wasn’t a law against it? In a perfect world where you could do what you wanted, I don’t know how happy that world would be. Maybe it would be really sick.”

“Children are pure id,” says his collaborator Declan Greene. “They really do represent this pre-socialised hunger. Watching evil child films is just watching a version of that which is untameable. There’s something perverse and wonderful about that.”

Little Mercy takes those sublimated desires and amplifies them—both horror and comedy are modes of excess, which allows the production to stay true to its generic referents while also seeing how far they can be pushed.

“One of the biggest tropes of the genre is that only the mother sees what’s going wrong and no one believes her,” says Flanders. “So this idea that this child is clearly an older woman but no one believes that there could ever be anything wrong with her, it’s that classic thing where you put a grenade in like this and it changes everything. At the same time you’ve got two men playing women. It’s clear that this is a world that’s not trying to make logical sense. It’s playing with form, exploiting these stories.”

The pair talk about the ‘cracks’ that such devices reveal in their own narrative, and how the company’s goal has long been one of finding such points of rupture within generic moulds. But the source of such a method is itself now a problem.

“A very important thing that has defined our practice has been poverty,” says Greene. “What we do is try to write narratives that we subject to pressure, and that pressure comes from the inadequate resources that we’ve managed to marshall to execute a much grander vision. The problem with trying to do a theatre show with a company like STC is that all of a sudden your resources are a lot better. You can’t just pretend you don’t have money when you’re at the STC.”

Sisters Grimm have long been Melbourne theatre’s own evil children. “We had our early shows where we’d make ourselves vomit on stage or perform sex acts, and you have to do it when you’re a bit younger,” says Greene, “when you have to ‘find your voice’ by spewing on each other.” But, says Flanders, “Doing a show in a car park with a bunch of cool theatre friends also feels safe in a way, too. It has a touch of preaching to the choir.”

In addition to Little Mercy at STC, a new Sisters work will premiere at the Melbourne Theatre Company this year. But the pair aren’t interested in playing the outrageous kids trying to shock the big theatre crowds with their edgy material. “It’s important that we’re breaking our own rules, not theirs, says Greene, “that we’re creating a world with very clear and distinct rules and then upending those.”

“It is about breaking your own rules, rather than trying to get some rise out of the audience,” says Flanders. “That almost feels falser to me. That feels too controlled. I’d rather set up a world and have that crumble in front of you.”

Sydney Theatre Company, Little Mercy by Sisters Grimm, creators Ash Flanders, Declan Greene, Wharf 2, March 7-24, www.sydneytheatre.com.au

RealTime issue #113 Feb-March 2013 pg. 32

© John Bailey; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

25 February 2013