Review: My Stories, Your Emails ~ theatre notes

Monday, March 29, 2010

Review: My Stories, Your Emails

You might have noticed that Ms TN is pretending that the Melbourne International Comedy Festival is not happening. If the Melbourne Fringe sends me into a tailspin, contemplating the MICF causes flat-out panic. This is not a syndrome that afflicts punters; it is an anxiety peculiar to crrritics, who all (the real ones, that is) start looking haggard about this time of year, as if they have been indulging in absinthe in grotty night clubs while pondering Jean-Paul Sartre's observations on the nausea of existence. Ms TN, however, is innocent and blithe and, above all, ignorant of all this. I am wearing my novelist's hat and, as everyone knows, that means being grimly chained to a desk and having no fun at all.

This hat is not quite nailed on, however, which means that every now and then it slips off. So it happened that, in the course of my normal theatre-going last week, I saw by accident a couple of very funny shows. One - Ursula Martinez's My Stories, Your Emails at the Malthouse - is, in fact, part of the Comedy Festival. The second, acrobat's PropagandA (of which more later), on this week at the North Melbourne Meatmarket, isn't. Both are slyly subversive and wholly entertaining works of theatre, and are highly recommended.

Ursula Martinez is best known for her magic act Hanky Panky. A highlight of the popular burlesque show La Clique, it is a witty, wickedly sexy takedown of striptease. Martinez enters in a prim business suit, her hair drawn back tightly in a bun. The one intimation of lust is a red handkerchief, which she makes disappear, and then discovers in items of clothing which she removes. At last, there is no more clothing to hide it: but she still makes it disappear. In the intimate environs of the Spiegeltent, which is where I originally saw it, I thought I had never seen such a subversively erotic act: it was notable for Martinez’s sexual self-possession, how, even when she was completely naked, she was never reduced to a mere object of the audience’s gaze.

However, in 2006 the act was filmed and uploaded, without her consent, to the internet. Martinez plays the video during the course of My Stories, Your Emails, and it’s striking how filming the striptease changes the nature of the act. It remains subversive and comic, but something crucial has shifted: it removes Martinez’s direct relationship with an audience. In a video, the watching eye is dominant in a way that doesn’t happen in live performance, wholly overturning the feminist subtext of the original act. And into the vacuum caused by her physical absence rush the lively fantasies of the voyeur.

After the video appeared, Martinez was bombarded by thousands of fannish emails. My Stories, Your Emails is a consistently hilarious and often uncomfortable exploration of the gap between her idea of herself, and those projected onto her image by her sometimes deluded fans.

The show, as she explains in a straight-up introduction, is divided into two parts. The first – fragmentary, almost poetic narratives about herself and her family – consists of her stories. They build up a complex and contradictory picture of a bi-cultural upbringing in London, exploring the intricacies and brutalities of class and race, sibling rivalries and cruelties, a vexed relationship with her father, brushes with celebrity (performing at Salman Rushdie's stag night) and brief observations: a football crowd in a pub, an encounter in a lift.

The second half consist of emails and photographs she received after her act was uploaded to a porn site. These vary from the obscene ("Eric", who sent her photographs of his penis before and after watching her video, helpfully telling her its dimensions) to Niko, a young Australian whose open and naive confession of his sexual loneliness is as painful as it is funny. There are the enthusiastic naturists who wish her good luck in all her nude activities, the Latino gentlemen seeking a discreet affair, and the Californians who practice Tantric sex and whose physical exertions should never be tried at home by anyone who isn't a Yogi.

The contrast between the two ideas of Martinez is what drives the energy of the show. Martinez lightly invokes a darker subtext – racism, familial abuse, grief and, especially in the second half, loneliness and delusion – that ensures My Stories, Your Emails is never merely glib, or merely cruel. Martinez doesn’t moralise – she leaves that to her audience – but the show feels like a reclamation of sorts. Also, it’s very, very funny.

As an aside, this show caused a bit of a ruckus when it premiered at the Barbican in the UK. As Matt Trueman reported in the Guardian, amid some glowing four-star reviews were others which expressed discomfort or even outrage at the show's ethics. Financial Times critic Ian Shuttleworth wondered about the provenance of her use of the images and words of others. "Her own intimacies are hers to peddle," he said. "Other people's, even if sent to her unsolicited, are not." Others wondered whether she had permission to identify her correspondents (where they are identified, she does have permission, as is clear in the course of the show), and claimed she was "punishing" men for expressing desire. In short, there was quite a lot of moral frothing.

There's no doubt that this show is sometimes uncomfortable viewing, and that the expressions of loneliness in those emails can be movingly sad. But it's noticeable that somehow in this argument Martinez was again erased. Nobody mentioned the dynamic that drives the show: the transformation of an empowering expression of female sexuality into the passive objectification of porn. Martinez here simply exposes the mechanics of that transformation.

In its original context, Hanky Panky caused exactly the effect it intended: reduced and flattened onto a screen in a private room, it became something entirely different. Without any editorialising, My Stories, Your Emails explores one of the major dilemmas of the age of instant celebrity and internet reproducibility: context is what you make it, and the virtual trumps the real. When Martinez strips at the end of the show to deliver the promised "minge", she simply takes off her clothes, as casually as if she were about to have a shower, and stands naked before her audience. She is no sex bomb, simply a naked woman with the chutzpah to make fun of her own body. And most of all, you know it is her body.

A shorter version of this review was published in Friday's Australian.

Picture: Ursula Martinez in
My Stories, Your Emails.

My Stories, Your Emails, created and performed by Ursula Martinez, directed by Mark Whitelaw. Originally commissioned by Barbicanbite10 and Queer Up North International Festival, England. Malthouse Theatre @ the Melbourne International Comedy Festival . Beckett Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until April 3.


Chris Boyd said...

But it's noticeable that somehow in this argument Martinez was again erased. Nobody mentioned the dynamic that drives the show: the transformation of an empowering expression of female sexuality into the passive objectification of porn. Martinez here simply exposes the mechanics of that transformation.

Surely it was Martinez who reduced the debate to a singularity... simply an opposition of "this is me" vs "this is what they think I am"? That's an observation not (necessarily) a criticism.

I'm fascinated by the effect of 'mediation' on the live performance. And that, presumably, she had no stalkers as a result of her live act, but she had all these remote flashers once 3D was reduced to 2D.

As an aside, or another aside, when La Clique had a return season in Melbourne, her part (as it were) was replaced by a bloke... who used an altogether different orifice to stash his hankie. :-)

I thought his casting was a very shrewd move.

Alison Croggon said...

I think your second point - that she didn't attract this kind of attention with her live performance - goes to the nub of it.

I don't know whether she "reduced the debate to a singularity", although she certainly structured the show as you say. Surely there was a plurality in the content of both her self-observations and in those emails that argues against that? And that simple proposition - "this is me" vs "this is how I'm perceived" is one of the more complex problems of art. And life.

I was kind of fascinated by how people projected attitudes onto the show that weren't necessarily expressed in the show - eg, one reviewer said all the emails were "disgusting", and I didn't get that she was claiming that at all.