This is a very long and at times very wanky review of two fascinating recent shows. In fact it's really a review of a few very small elements in those shows, but in the last week I've written thousands of words trying to get to this point and can't be arsed rewriting them to make said point clearer. So this is what ya get.
By Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm. Season ended.
I stole this image from Theatre Notes. Couldn't find any others.
Nobody has given it the label but I reckon the theatre of Black Lung is the closest we have to Menippean satire. It’s a term that could also be applied to Daniel Schlusser’s work, as well as some of Lally Katz’s writing, Post’s performative style, maybe Family of Strangers (who I saw at the Glasoon afterparty) certainly Simon Stone’s first version of Spring Awakening.
The Menippean is a rarely accomplished and critically underappreciated mode – it’s typified by some of the most difficult of postmodern works, but is much more specific than that term. Menippean satire is satire without a mimetic referent: it doesn’t lampoon characters or situations as deviations from a norm but presents a universe where there is no norm, where everything is aberration, where narrative is simply what happens rather than what has been willed. Fiction doesn’t attempt to recreate reality because reality is simply a series of competing fictions anyway. The page knows nothing outside of its borders; the stage extends beyond the horizon.
In this way, Menippean satire is profoundly ontological. It doesn’t satirise what apparently exists but laughs at existence; or, rather, at the ways we attempt to organise our world into something we call existence. This is why it’s far more threatening than magical realism, which is too often a gentle way of explaining why there’s a bear in the kitchen. Call it magical realism and it becomes a stylistic affectation. Bring in the Menippean – embrace the bear – and you need to rethink certain assumptions fundamental to Australian theatre.
In opposition to this form of ontological theatre is the epistemological. Ontology is the study of being; epistemology the study of knowing. An epistemological fiction presents us with characters whose tragedy or comedy stems from their unknowing, from the way they don’t fully understand the reality in which they exist, which is generally more apparent to us. In an ontological fiction we’re not put in that privileged place, and ‘reality’ becomes as strange and unstable as the figures we’re watching on stage.
To repeat: this isn’t about weirdness intruding into the everyday, or not just that, at least. In literature, the most obvious hint that you’re reading an ontologically interested novel is the unreliable narrator – the narrative voice that may be lying to you, may be insane, confused, deluded, drunk, asleep, or simply wrong.
Australian theatre is mostly still locked in a committed relationship with the mimetic. It tries to reproduce something outside of itself, which can range from the supposedly stable world realism attempts to render to the more basic emulation of an ideal performance of a pre-existing text (getting Shakespeare right, even if it’s dressed up in a different costume, for instance; or ‘staying true’ to the essence of a play while tinkering with the presentation). The play, or reality, take the place of the Platonic Form – there is a perfect version of Hamlet which can never be realised in physical form, but we can see its reflection in the imperfect attempts of all-too-human players.
Then there are those theatremakers who get up to all sorts of muckety-muck to mess with that notion of theatre as mimesis, as Platonic. Black Lung do it remarkably well.
A friend described his thoughts on the opening sequence of Glasoon as follows: “a Christ-figure in blood-spattered nappy is suckled back to life by an opera-singing woman. Then things get weird.” A fine summation. Things certainly got weird. A towering drag queen whose chief acting talent is his testicles; enough vomit that few in the front row left without a bit of carrot sticking to their clothing; and a little person being used as a man’s phallus during a sex scene.
I’m not interested in describing the plot of the piece or anything. What interests me is the way the Black Lung aesthetic, more rigorous than it would seem on the surface, allows for such offensive stuff to be anything but offensive. And it’s not the hipster irony defence, either. It’s that the abject and shocking aren’t exceptions or aberrations in the Black Lung world – they’re the stuff that make up that world. There’s such a dedicated affinity with otherness that it’s clear this is satire of that Menippean bent, which is about collapsing oppositions rather than pointing at the other side of the fence and laughing at what you see.
By Hayloft Project. Black Box, the Arts Centre, until 19 Dec.
This image is official and not stolen. It's by Jeff Busby.
The Hayloft Project’s latest is something very different, and I couldn’t help but compare it to Black Lung’s other work before I’ d even seen Glasoon. The reason for this is simple: I was offended by B.C.
Not that the show sets out to offend, not at all. And in fact it’s not that there’s anything necessarily offensive in the piece itself; rather, it was the audience response that had me gobsmacked.
B.C. recasts the story of the Virgin Mary as a backyard Australian drama with touches of the surreal. Mary is a disaffected teen with weirdly sexualised relationship with her father; Joseph is a Wog Boy who works at the local shoe shop; the angel Gabriel is Mary’s intellectually disabled younger brother who’s obsessed with birds, (becoming them, eating them, killing them). It’s superbly directed and the cast here are uniformly top-notch – as Mary’s mother, Margaret Mills easily gives one of the year’s most moving performances.
But it’s the characters of Gabriel and Joseph that got to me. Firstly there’s the dramatic poverty of presenting a “retard” as the window to the sacred, which I’ll let alone here. What startled me was the way the character drew so many laughs – long, loud belly-rumbling guffaws. It didn’t feel as if anyone was laughing along with the guy, either. It felt as if we were laughing at this disabled clown, laughing at his difference from our safe seats while being comforted by the hints that he was also a messenger from God. Retards are always great that way, being both funny and ever-so-slightly magical.
Joseph, too, drew a lot of laughter. With his head-to-toe track wear, his obsession with muscle definition, his generic woggy accent and his exaggerated masculinity, he was a parody of the outer-suburban second-generation Australian male – a ripe figure for parody, sure, but here’s the rub. Both Dylan Young (Gabriel) and Ashley Zukerman (Joseph) give outstanding performances, and I’ve never actually seen either actor give anything less. But how would the laughter have changed if a disabled actor or one from a working class ethnic background had been cast in either role? God knows, there are plenty of each around. And plenty who can play comedy and play it well.
I’m not saying that people should only be cast as types, but when actors from ‘minority’ backgrounds have enough difficulty scoring roles that aren’t reducible to that tokenistic minority position, why give such roles to actors who don’t face that kind of difficulty? Again, these were great performers but the meritocracy argument isn’t enough here.
And in the end, this is what had me thinking about Black Lung here – I couldn’t help thinking that B.C., which ultimately espouses an attitude of compassion and respect for difference, falls back too often on traditional satire, laughing at others and hoping they’re not in the audience. For Black Lung, those others seem to be the assumed audience, and if you’re offended it’s because you think it’s all just a joke you’re not getting. Only when you start to see the seriousness of it all do you start to laugh along with a Menippean satire.