The Burlesque Hour Loves Melbourne was written by Alison Croggon and published on Theatre Notes on Friday 8 July. Please see in its full context here.
Right now, just after the winter solstice, Ms TN is struggling. The skies have been grey for too long, the news has been bleak for too long, and human beings have been stupid and destructive for too long. Nary a light gleams at the end of the tunnel, and actually doing things – like, say, getting out of bed – seems impossible and futile. Yes, I know despair is a sin – I suspect I am on my way to discovering why – but the fear of God’s wrath is little use to an atheist.
Midweek funk is an all-too-common disease. But I can recommend a very effective temporary medicine – a visit to the latest incarnation of The Burlesque Hour at Fortyfive Downstairs. The theatre is transformed by a cloud of red Chinese lanterns into a cosily tatty club that might have existed in the Weimar Republic, with nests of be-candled tables and a catwalk up the middle of the space. You can hear the buzz of conversation ascending as you walk down the stairs, and already the sad heart lifteth. The Burlesque Hour Loves Melbourne is a tonic for the soul: sexy, hilarious, perverse, disturbing and liberatingly beautiful.
Contemporary burlesque curated by Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith, it’s an exhilarating meld of cabaret, circus, vaudeville and performance art that moves spankingly through its many moods. It’s a very Australian show, and has everything I love about this culture – fearlessness, subversion, wit, mischief and intelligence. And it has a starry list of weekly guests: so far they’ve included Rhonda Burchmore and Pamela Rabe, and coming attractions include Phillip Adams (he of Balletlab) with an especially commissioned dance; Meow Meow, direct from the West End; Constantina Bush and the Bushettes and Die Roten Punkte.
Finucane and Smith fans will have seen a few of these acts already: this is a kind of “new and selected” anthology of burlesque hits, with spangles, feathers, balloons and plenty of spillage (umbrellas are provided). But I can confirm that they are even better on a return visit. There’s Romeo, the leather-jacketed macho boy stripping to Chrissy Amphlett’s I Touch Myself, and the Queen of Hearts, with her cloud of red balloons and her nests of nipple-needles. There’s Finucane’s repressed pie woman, trembling with orgasmic excitement as she stirs her finger into a meat pie to AC/DC, and spilling tomato sauce and pie innards all over her neatly buttoned uniform.
Vaudeville acts by Holly Durant, Harriet Ritchie and Sosina Wogayehu include juggling, a whip cracking display and dance, including a dervish dance of two outrageously hairy women, an extension of an idea first performed for the burlesque by butoh dancer Yumi Umiumare. Their somehow innocent perversity recalls something of Maenads or forest spirits out of a Miyazake film. And they encapsulate the polymorhous nature of this show, which is at once serious and outrageously hilarious, surface and depth, spectacle and intimacy. Many acts invert expectations, such as the incomparable Maude Davey, stark naked aside from heels and rhinestone necklace, turning the sexual mystery of the vamp torch singer inside out by exposing everything, which somehow got funnier as the act went on.
There’s a dark subtext to this show. A woman in a fur coat and sunglasses enters through the audience to Anthony and the Johnson’s heartbreaking ballad Hope There’s Someone, and appears to collapse; she makes her trembling way to the back of the stage, and is then hoisted up naked, like a carcass in an abattoir, leaving us momentarily and starkly silent. Or an avatar of death parades slowly down the catwalk, draped in black fabric through which she languorously smokes a cigarette, before popping a balloon that leaks sticky strips of black tar all over her naked body.
Finucane’s bizzare erotic monologue to the National Gallery’s water wall is a highlight. I can’t think of another performer who is able to reach simultaneously such heights of comedy and erotic extremity. Unless, of course, it’s Pamela Rabe. The guest artist for this week, she appeared as a statuesque goddess in a full-length black rubber dress with buttons all down the front, and performed an extraordinary monologue. It was a collage of quotations from Franz Wedekind’s Spring Awakening and excerpts from an ancient Sumerian poem about the Queen of Heaven, the goddess Inanna. I shall not forget (and neither, I suspect, will the two men from the audience with whom she exited stage left) Rabe declaiming: “Who will plough my vulva!” It was breath taking, beautiful, terrifying and absurd, all at the same time.
But maybe I laughed most at Maude Davey’s astounding performance of The Angels’ classic hit, Am I Ever Going to See Your Face Again. Davey is in heels, nipple stars, ridiculous orange ostrich feathers, spangles and not much else. I’m old enough to remember seeing an angel-faced Doc Neeson belt this one out in some sticky-carpeted pub, and I can tell you that Davey gives him a run for his money in the rock-star charisma stakes. But she is much, much funnier.
This show is all about being human: human desire and human fear and human beauty and human laughter. It’s a reminder of all those complexities that get edited out of mass culture. As with poetry, these things won’t make the news, but people “die every day for the lack of what is found there”. I can’t think of a better antidote to the midwinter blues.