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Farce stabs a rich vein

Liza Power
The Age
28/07/2012

AS A satirist, Michael Dalley has made a career of taking the mickey. Middle-class values, real estate agents, the nouveau riche, his closest friends and acquaintances – nothing is out of bounds. ”I could make a cabaret about the Labor Party or Family First,” he jokes over coffee, ”but it would be too easy and pointless. It’s more interesting to pick apart what you’re supposed to hold sacred.” Better still to do it in a slick, mordant, wildly witty way, which is of course precisely what Dalley is renowned for.

In his coming production of Mademoiselle, created with long-time collaborator Paul McCarthy and composer John Thorn, the writer-performer turns his attention to subjects we’re all familiar with: bitterness and backstabbing. With song titles such as The Passive Aggressive Filipino Amway Lady and The Table Manners of the Petit Bourgeoisie, the cabaret promises to provoke laughter and mortification in equal measure.

The production was inspired by The Maids, French dramatist Jean Genet’s 1947 play about two housemaids who devise elaborate sadomasochistic rituals when the lady of the house is away. Dalley started with the mental image of a woman in a baroque dress ”with two servants by her side sucking up to her” – a powerful, rich billionairess despised for her audacity and arrogance but pandered to for her money and influence.

Along the way, Genet’s script merged with stories Dalley gleaned from his father, who lived in Kenya and had houseboys as a kid (which informed the song When the Lower Middle Class Get Servants), and his own experiences of working in David Jones’ menswear department as a university student.

When you work for wealthy people, Dalley says, you’re educated in fine things – wine, fabrics, clothing and etiquette – but they’re never yours to keep. He was reminded of his graduate thesis on Genet, which examined how ”social systems are efficient because oppressive roles perpetuate themselves”.

Imagined differently, we resent the roles we’re conditioned to fill but we still follow our prescribed paths regardless. When we bitch and backstab, it’s as much a product of how we’re treated as frustration at our own inability to break free.

If boudoir brawls seem a long way from Dalley’s previous stage hit, Urban Display Suite, about Melburnians and their obsession with real estate, well, it is and it isn’t. ”I knew that it was tapping into the zeitgeist, but it wasn’t a cynical attempt to cash in.” The production opened at fortyfivedownstairs in May last year, travelled to Adelaide and then enjoyed a third season at the Arts Centre in summer. A highlight of last year’s cabaret calendar, it featured such hits as The White Collar Job for the Blue Collar Brain and My Little Bit of Everything McMansion Facade.

Despite its success, Dalley says he wasn’t tempted to tap the zeitgeist a second time. Yet inadvertently, that’s perhaps what he’s done. Bitterness and backstabbing may be timeless, but new media has undoubtedly made ”sledging” a more public social sport. Chat rooms, blogs and Twitter are awash with virulent attacks that defamation laws struggle to counter.

Dalley isn’t drawn to these ever-evolving permutations of ridicule, but he is fascinated by the mindset behind them.

”Everyone is carrying around resentment. There are people who perceive themselves as oppressed, rightly or wrongly, and they [behave like] cornered rats. It doesn’t take much for them to lash out. I wanted to look at the unhealthy aspects of ridicule.”

As a satirist, he’s in the enviable position of turning his delight of ridicule into an art. Many of us aren’t so fortunate; we’re lured into a dark and never-ending cycle of attack. ”Ridicule and backstabbing are a very inefficient means of revenge,” Dalley says. ”Pure ridicule is ultimately futile. If there’s no attempt to make beauty out of it … then it’s pure poison.”

Set in a boudoir, the production features two servants to a larger-than-life woman who is never seen. Free of her power, they set about recounting every character who has ever slighted them, getting into an orgy of one-upmanship.

”When you’re pulling culture apart, the boundaries come up automatically,” Dalley says, ”and to create challenging material [you have to] look at boundaries of taste and occasionally cross them.”

As for whether his characters manage to rise above it, he’s not saying. ”Let’s just say it’s very dark.”

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