Wednesday of this week must have seen some kind of astral confluence, water contamination or chemical imbalance of my brain as I got it into my damn fool head to attend not one, but two theatre shows on the same night (Wednesday night, as mentioned). How I managed to finish work at 6pm, get to Carlton to see Golden Chains at La Mama by 6.30pm and then over to North Melbourne to see Billy by 8pm is quite the miracle. Thank you non-denominational deity. How I managed to fit in a sit-down meal somewhere in there is even more incomprehensibel. Plus I dashed into the supermarket to pick up an onion, a lemon, baby spinach and some other stuff. Didn't throw any of it during either show.
Golden Chains...well, I'm not sure what to say about this one. It's physical theatre performed by a solo artist (Kath Papas) with recorded voices delivering text from Pushkin's Folktales as well as more contemporary documentary stuff. There's live percussion, too (very well delivered). But I wasn't quite sure what I was watching. Papas is a good presence, and has always seemed like a nice and professional person when I've seen her. And the show's creator Elissa Goodrich has done good work, too. But it wasn't apparent what linked the many components of the piece. Apparently Russia has something to do with it. By if there's one thing worse than being able to second-guess why every single artistic decision has been made, it's not being able to take a punt on any of them. I've since heard that the show was originally intended as part of La Mama's most recent Season of Explorations, and I think that would have been a more appropriate venue. Just because, well, this feels like a work in progress, and it probably needs some time to ripen.
Billy has had a looong time to mature, and writers Sue Gore and Bill Garner know their historical stuff. They specialise in solidly researched plays which unearth lesser-known events and characters from Melbourne's past (The Ishmael Club was a winner which was picked up by the then-Playbox for a more mainstream season). In this case, they've picked up on the story of Billy Maloney, a "larger-than-life" character who helped get women the vote, fought for the 8 hour workday, spoke up for free speech etc etc. He was a parliamentarian of the most idealistic, utopian sort, and the play does a good job of painting him as a candidate for secular sainthood.
It's also a very weird experience for a relatively young 'un like me (not giving too much away there, obviously, since the mean audience for political/historical theatre is hardly that of The OC). Within a few minutes, we were standing on our feet singing along to a rousing old time tune of solidarity. What? At least I knew that I was hardly in for a dry old lecture.
And yes, it's a very enjoyable piece which left me with a spring in my step. That word, rousing, really is an apt one: I couldn't help but curse the current government and wish we had more fellas like that Billy Elliot, I mean Maloney around these days to fight the good fight. If the play is to be believed, he certainly accomplished more than any pollie of nowadays, and it's a depressing thought. I have to disagree with some when I suggest that the panto/music hall style of the play is perfectly appropriate: okay, it gives us a cardboard greasepaint version of an undoubtedly complex figure, but the play isn't seeking to open up an unproblematic window into another era or a subtle psychologising of a historical personage. It's trying to make you think about today's political climate, and about how in some ways we're far worse off than we might have been a century ago. Which is a fair aim. If it sometimes accomplishes this with exaggerated or ham-fisted acting, or creaky conventions, no matter. Gore and Garner are trying to rouse you, perhaps to action, and if they managed to literally rouse their audience to their feet every night, I imagine that we can't call this project an entirely unsuccessful one.