Review: Car Maintenance Explosives and Love ~ theatre notes

Monday, January 29, 2007

Review: Car Maintenance Explosives and Love

Car Maintenance Explosives and Love (CMXL), written and performed by Donna Jackson, original direction and dramaturgy Andrea Lemon. Midsumma Festival @ Gasworks, South Melbourne.

Donna Jackson's powerhouse solo show, Car Maintenance Explosives and Love, has attained the status of a minor classic. It premiered a decade ago, subsequently touring Australia and Britain, and its script was included in, and lent its name to, an anthology of lesbian writing edited by Susan Hawthorn. It even has its own handy acronym - CMXL. After a hiatus of a few years it's on again as part of the Midsumma Festival, and it's well worth a look.

Like Jackson herself, CMXL has worn well. Jackson founded the Women's Circus, so it's no surprise that this show includes a large component of physical theatre. And like the Melbourne Workers Theatre gigashow We Built This City, which Jackson directed last year, it features an industrial aesthetic, blue-collar rock and angle grinders. It's delivered in a full-on performance, which swings between an electric physical dynamism - fuelled by riffs from AC/DC or the Divinyls - and moments of tender poignancy.

It's a well-written piece which draws its complexities from a supple weaving of contrast rather than subtleties of writing. Donna Jackson's narrator is a car mechanic, obsessed by her American eight-cylinder car and her deteriorating relationship with her middle-class lover. She comes from a distinguished lineage of mechanics (her grandmother was a aeroplane technician in World War 2, her father a truckie, or "cartage contractor"). She describes a working class milieu in which emotional inarticulacy is balanced by a rich oral tradition, in which rough comedy or violence are often a cover for pain.

She meets her lover at a party, where she rescues her from an importunate sleaze by stuffing him headfirst into a fishtank. Romance blossoms over the duco (there is much in here about the erotic power of cars) and her lover moves in with her cat, evicting the pitbull terrier and introducing the concept of dinner parties. It begins with great sex (beautifully evoked by a sequence on ropes), domestic bliss and the joys of renovating her lover's EJ Holden, but soon the honeymoon begins to splinter under their differences. Jackson withdraws in a classically masculine fashion to her garage, where she find solace in the order of car manuals, so much more legible than relationships, and starts to take classes in demolition at the local TAFE from "Fast Eddie", so called because of his limp.

What rises to the surface of this show isn't so much the issue of sexual orientation - with its masculine/feminine polarities, this relationship seems much like many heterosexual couples - but of class. The lover and her friends are politically active, but the narrator wonders why she and her friends just talk, instead of taking direct action and blowing things up. She often feels marginalised by their conversations, of interest only when something goes wrong with their cars. But despite her impatience with their intellectualising, she finds that she is, herself, incapable of violent action; she understands its ugliness too well.

The relationship ends, in the best scene of the show, when her lover confesses that what most attracts her is the narrator's physical strength and incipient violence. She asks if she could "push her around" when they are making love. Jackson explodes with insult and rage, nearly throttling her lover. What she is protesting, without being able to articulate it, is the fetishisation of her working class background as a sexual turn-on, which exposes her lover's inability, finally, to understand her reality as a feeling human being. To Jackson's narrator, this is a kind of violence she cannot deal with. What divides them finally is an inability to see past the conditionings of class.

It adds up to a show that's hard to dislike, although it doesn't escape a feeling of datedness: circus skills in theatre are now a commonplace, and the audience interaction didn't, for me, add much to the show. Australian physical theatre has come a long way in the past decade. CMXL has some themes in common with Kage Physical Theatre's Headlock, which also sensitively and honestly explores issues of gender, emotional inarticulacy and violence; but theatrically speaking, Headlock is in a different realm. If Headlock is a theatrical equivalent of Radiohead, CMXL is like old-fashioned rock and roll: plain, honest theatre, which serves up exactly what it promises. No bullshit.

1 comment:

Christine Evans said...

Hello Alison,
Re. your observation (true) that Donna Jackson founded the Melbourne Women's Circus-- I wonder if you also know about its short-lived and nutty precursor, the Wimmins Circus? I was a founding member, along with ten other women including some of the (then) Circus Oz performers who initiated the project for a one-off show--- it then kept going. Unlike the later Women's Circus, we weren't abuse survivors who turned to circus, but a very eclectic bunch of musicians, acrobats, writers and dancers who formed around the (long defunct) Pram Factory. We came together in 1979 for a Melbourne Art Attacks festival and lasted until 1981 (I think?) In that time we performed scores of shows and toured to Sydney and Perth. Ollie Black --exVitalstatistix co-founding member, probably has the best memory and collection of photos, programs etc.

As for me, I now work as a playwright & have been based in the US for the last 6 years.