Comedy Festival ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Comedy Festival

Comedy Festival: The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, devised and edited by Jon Haynes, David Woods and Jude Kelly, directed by Jude Kelly with Ridiculusmus, David Woods and Jon Haynes. Malthouse Theatre until April 30. A Porthole into the Minds of the Vanquished written adn performed by Tamlyn Henderson and Warwick Allsopp, direction by Ansuya Nathan and Tony Taylor, musical direction/keyboards by John Rutledge. Regent Room @ Melbourne Town Hall until May 7. From Bombay to Beijing by Bicycle written and performed by Russell McGilton, directed by Kimberley Grigg-Pierzchalski, music by Alan Griffiths. 45 Downstairs until May 7.

Sometimes I wonder if festivals are what Melbourne has instead of a culture. The arts calendar seems to wander from one festival to another, oscillating between feast and famine like a cultural bulimic. However, the Comedy Festival is one of our success stories, growing out of the innovative comedy scene of late 70s Melbourne to become one of the big three in the world. With 230 events under its frenetic umbrella, it's more than usually impossible to know what to look at. These are the chance sightings your fearless critic made before a virus grabbed me by the jugular and dragged me down into lowland...

The Importance of Being Earnest is a glittering chandelier of a play, one of my all-time favourites. While it's hard to miss Wilde's wit and flair, it's less easy to see the toughness, even the bleakness, that underlies his dazzling nonsense. Ridiculusmus's anarchic interpretation reminds me how resilient this play really is, how Wilde's sure sense of theatricality and dramatic structure survives - even gleams the more brightly - under the British duo's disrespectful treatment.

Oscar Wilde is the patron saint of camp, the aesthetic of pure artifice. As Susan Sontag comments, camp is "above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation - not judgment. Camp is generous... It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it is not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.)" Camp is not the opposite of serious: Wilde was, after all, the most serious of artists. But it's his unmalicious laughter at the passionate superficiality of human beings that gives this play its irresistible buoyancy.

The play itself is a brilliant conceit, and much more than an elaborate excuse for a bad pun. Not a single character in it is in the least credible: each one of them, from the various Ernests to Lady Bracknell, is an utterly conscious being, wholly aware of his or her own subtext. As Gwendolen says, the vital thing is style, not sincerity.

In the comic couplings of the various pairs of lovers, Wilde acutely sketches romantic love as egocentric projection: the Lacanian admonition on the impossibility of actual love is here given theatrical body. The attraction of Ernest (whether Algernon or Jack) lies in his name, not his person. Its charm exists in the sensational imaginations of Cecily and Gwendolen, and both of them are completely conscious of their own egocentricity (Cecily even writes her own love letters to herself). That Jack does indeed turn out to be Ernest - that his lies were in fact the truth - does not disturb Gwendolen's satisfaction, since, as she observes sagely, her Ernest is "sure to change".

Wilde's observation that human behaviour is a profound playing of roles ("To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up," says one character in An Ideal Husband) makes this play particularly apt to Ridiculusmus' treatment. The two actors, Jon Haynes and David Woods, play all the characters, helped with some intelligent direction and ever more ingenious costume changes.

From the start you are not allowed to forget that you are watching actors pretending to be someone else, which creates yet another layer of performance to those already woven into the play. The stage is an over-the-top collection of Victoriana, every square inch a nightmare of chintz and chi-chi, and all the stage business is transparent to the audience. Sound cues are mostly controlled by the actors, using a cd player with a remote control, and characters are indicated by costume changes.

At the beginning the costume changes create lengthy pauses that are fully exploited for their comedic possibilities, as David Woods dons the butler outfit or Jon Haynes becomes (to the accompaniment of the Ride of the Valkyries) Lady Bracknell in full sail. Once the conceit is established, the switches become more and more inventive, using hand puppets and other devices, until by the end a wig or a shirt is enough to suggest a whole character.

Ridiculusmus releases the play's erotic anarchy: the sexual games which bubble beneath the surface of Wilde's text are given grotesque and hilarious articulation. That one so willingly suspends disbelief in the face of such flamboyant artifice says as much for the energy of the performances as it does for Wilde's play.

A Porthole into the Minds of the Vanquished is another two-hander by two extremely accomplished performers, Tamlyn Harrison and Warwick Allsopp. Apparently the script is based on text messages the two have exchanged since 2001. That explains the man who is trapped inside the mobile phone, starving to death.

They have created a surreal cabaret, supposedly a peek inside the minds "of the vanquished", whoever the vanquished are. Although the show includes satire (of television quiz shows or talk-back radio, for example) they go way beyond parody into an alternative reality created solely by language: surreal linguistic and sonic juxtapositions give birth to new forms of life, like the paypacket porcupines, or percussive eyeballs evoked by vacuum-packed squids. It's associative comedy like that of the Goons, creating its own absurd narrative-defying logic; but it has sinister, even viscerally disturbing, undertones.

What makes this show is the razor-sharp performances. Henderson and Allsopp are outrageously talented: they can act, sing, dance and even play the squid. They're ably backed by John Rutledge on keyboards, who gives them the requisite atmospherics.

From Bombay to Bejing by Bicycle is another self devised piece, this time a solo show by Russell McGirton, economically directed by Kimberley Grigg-Pierzchalski. As the title suggests, it's about his adventure holiday in which he rode a bicycle from Bombay - known these days as Mumbai - to Beijing.

It was a fruitful trip, since he also wrote a book, Yakety Yak, about his experiences, which were various and often comic (to hear about, if not to experience). The hour-long show is narrated as if in a hallucinatory delirium - it opens with his Indian doctor saying cheerily, "Congratulation! You are having the malaria!" and from then on it's a mad ride through McGirton's memories.

In between nightmarish treatments with giant injections and prescriptions for health that include drinking his own urine, McGirton summons up a cast of 20 characters. They include his father and a cartoon British officer, who are perhaps the bullying superegos that sent him on this masochistic odyssey in the first place. He tells of violent encounters with the local wildlife, explores the comedy of cultural incomprehension and breaks up with his girlfriend. And there's the obligatory diarrhea sketch, which rivals Billy Connelly's excesses.

Like most travel stories, it's more about the traveller than the country he encounters. It is a surprisingly intimate tale, inventively theatricalised, and narrated with considerable physical bravura. And, yes, it's very funny.

2006 Melbourne Comedy Festival

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