Review: The Burlesque Hour More/A Slight Ache ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Review: The Burlesque Hour More/A Slight Ache

The Burlesque Hour More More More! with Moira Finucane, Azaria Universe, Yumi Umiumare and Angus Cerini. Fortyfivedownstairs, City, until July 7.

A Slight Ache by Harold Pinter, directed by Matt Scholten. Designed by Shayne Greenman, costume design by Kylie Wake, sound and lighting by Simon Prentice. With Lou Endicott, Troy Larkin and Lawrence Price. If Theatre @ Chapel off Chapel (closed Sunday).

True to TN's turbo-charged ability to keep up with the new, she's finally seen The Burlesque Hour, oh, two years after it was, with local favourite La Clique, the toast of the Edinburgh Festival. It's not hard to see what the fuss is about. This show is to theatre what Époisses de Bourgogne is to cheese: vividly pungent, seductively soft, as complex as decay itself - most certainly, a taste shaped for adult palates.

In the mid-90s, a bunch of artists remade the tropes of music hall and vaudeville for the 21st century: they took the satin and velvet curtains of burlesque, added touches of cabaret, theatre and circus to the traditional strip-tease, and voila! a new movement was born. The Burlesque Hour is this neo-burlesque tradition in collision with performance art. If it weren't so much fun, it would be deadly serious. Or maybe, like sex itself, it is deadly serious and fun.

For this is a show that is mainly about sex. Not the fantasy sex so beloved of Hollywood, nor the asensual, alienated misogyny that characterises most pornography; this is sex that is funny, disturbing and outrageous, sex that involves real bodies (and most kinds of bodily fluids). The bodies that are flirting with us and enchanting us are at once powerful, mysterious, perverse and vulnerable. Most of all, they are shapeshifters who remind us that desire is polymorphous, a force that shatters and remakes identity. (Much of this show is surprising, so if you haven't seen it and intend to, be warned: there are major spoilers beneath the fold. Perhaps all you need to know is that I watched most of this show with my mouth open.)

Thanks to a garbage truck that collided with a train in Yarraville, thus disastrously disrupting my travel plans, I arrived out of breath in the middle of the first act. As I hastily found my seat amidst the tables, I kept one amazed eye on the catwalk that stretched out from the small, voluptuously curtained stage. A tall man in a plaid shirt was performing a striptease. The sight itself was eye-popping: he was the reverse of the buff male stripper, skinny and gawky, gyrating widely with parodic gestures. He stripped down to underpants and shirt, and I found myself staring at the unlikely bulge in his Y-fronts. It looked as if he had a sausage stuffed in there. I thought of Gene Simmonds, who reportedly used to enhance his manhood with an avocado.

And then this man flung off his shirt, revealing two quite real breasts. It was completely unexpected: until that moment, I had not even the remotest idea that he was anything but male. My next thought was that I was looking at a genuine androgyne. But then he pulled a feather boa out of his underpants, and I realised that he was a she, and these people - or at least, Moira Finucane - were fucking with my brain. That deeply disconcerting moment of perceptual disruption, which releases itself in delighted laughter, signals the underlying tone of the show.

Here gender is not a rule, but a game. The next act is Azaria Universe, a sexy strongwoman with a beard, doing a hoop act while oscillating between extremes of masculine showmanship (look at these biceps!) and uber-feminine eyelash batting. To be followed by the Butoh-inflected anarchy of Yumi Umiumare as a heavy-metal Coppelia and a Hello Kitty who shows that Japanese kitsch is weirder than you ever thought. There are also a couple of comedic strip tease acts from a guest artist - tonight, Melbourne performance artist/writer Angus Cerini, comically exploring the anxieties and inhibitions of masculinity.

All these acts derive their power from the uninhibited intensity of the performers, as is illustrated in an act that is perhaps the most surprising and transgressive of all of them. In the middle of all this flesh and anarchy, Moira Finucane comes back on stage, to the soundtrack of Elvis Costello's beautiful ballad I Want You. Dressed in a heavy black Victorian bustle, her hair drawn back tightly from her face, she mimes the ache of longing. The only naked skin on view in this act is Finucane's face, which stares yearningly out of the stern prison of her dress and posture, and her white, neurotic hands, helplessly seeking release in a minimalist performance of anguished, inexpressible desire.

Victoriana's counterpoint is Azaria Universe, who achieves the extraordinary feat of eroticising the act of eating fairy floss and who, naked except for long strings of fake pearls, reveals the real pain inside the incomparable kitsch of Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse of the Heart. But the act that I won't forget is Finucane as a classic Greek priestess dressed in white robes, stepping slowly on stage holding aloft a white bowl full of a red soup.

The act moves from comic (as she solemnly produces a spoon and begins, with exaggerated, even orgasmic, pleasure to eat the soup) to grotesque (as she begins to spill it over her pristine white costume and whisk it over the audience) to authentic Bacchanalian excess. Finally she lifts the bowl to her mouth and drinks, spilling a red stream over her chin and her breasts: and she is suddenly a creature of Dionysian mysteries, the terrifying image of a Maenad, drenched in the blood of her homicidal orgies. It must be one of the most perverse and exhilaratingly beautiful things I have ever seen.

FOR its debut production, If Theatre has chosen an early and - comparatively speaking - slight play by Harold Pinter, A Slight Ache. Originally commissioned for radio (and perhaps having the distinction of including what might be the only silent character ever written for radio), it was written by Pinter just after the The Birthday Party's disastrous debut on the West End.

It's interesting chiefly for what it presages in the later work: there are shadows of concerns that later evolve into the masterly Ashes to Ashes, for example. And it certainly includes some writing of astounding lyrical beauty. The play has a certain crudity of structure and idea that, to my mind, stops it from being in the first rank of Pinter's work. However, it's a good and interesting choice for a debut production of a young company, neither too ambitious nor too modestly self-effacing, and it's certainly worth the effort of producing.

Matt Scholten gives it a stylish production. The minimalist set has different playing areas designated by furniture, which abstractly outline the space of a comfortable house and garden, and the whole is lushly illuminated, creating little spaces of light in the darkness of the stage. It suggests the unreality of Pinter's story, which, in how it invokes the hidden desires and fears that live beneath the comfortable surface of middle class existence, is more like a Victorian ghost story than anything else.

A Slight Ache is a simple but unsettling drama about a well-off, quintessentially English couple, Edward (Lawrence Price) and Flora (Lou Endicott), who are haunted by a mysterious and ambiguously menacing stranger, an old and filthy matchseller (Troy Larkin) who stands by the back gate. When Edward, for reasons that are not at all clear, invites him into the house, the matchseller's silence and unresponsiveness draws out of the couple their deepest secrets.

Lawrence Price's performance is riveting, suggesting the subdued bully driven by a raging impotence. His performance is very slightly exaggerated, expressing the heightened naturalism of the dialogue. It's a fine judgement that is not quite matched by Lou Endicott, whose performance is dominated by an excruciating imitation of received English. It so grated my ear that I couldn't really perceive the rest of her performance, but to me it seemed mannered rather than heightened, a parody of the role rather than an expression of it. And Troy Larkin looked rigid and menacing and silent. I'm not sure that he didn't have the hardest role of all.

It's a respectable enough debut to ensure that I will be at If Theatre's next production, which is interesting in itself: a remount of three Jack Hibberd plays at La Mama, as part of La Mama's 40th birthday celebrations. I'm sure they'll be a welcome addition to Melbourne's theatrical diet.

Pictures: Top (left to right) Moira Finucane, Yumi Umiamare and Azaria Universe of The Burlesque Hour; Bottom: Lawrence Price in If Theatre's A Slight Ache.

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