Left – Bessie Holland and Agent Cleave. Cover – Agent Cleave.Photos – Marg Horwell
Summertime in the Garden of Eden is an utterly fabulous work of theatre. It’s a perfect way to close out Griffin’s 2013 season. This is the first piece of work I’ve seen from Sisters Grimm, although their reputation precedes them – they have, per the program, “cultivat[ed] a unique brand of queer DIY drag-theatre which is cheap, accessible and extremely faggy”. This show more than lived up to the hype. I will be following this company avidly from now on.
This show draws on the literature of the antebellum South, all hoop skirts and sweet tea and racial oppression while the Civil War rages, at first in the distance and then growing ever nearer and nearer. Our show begins when Honey Sue (Olympia Bukkakis) returns home for the first time in many years, because her father Big Daddy (Bessie Holland) is in poor health. She is greeted by her sister Daisy May (Agent Cleave) and faithful black housekeeper and nursemaid Mammy (Genevieve Giuffre) and meets (for the first time – or is it?) Daisy May’s fiancé, Clive O’Donnell (Peter Paltos), who at first seems squeaky clean but reveals more and more secrets as the play unfolds. Honey Sue too has a secret, which she dare not tell Big Daddy, but as the war grows ever closer, her situation becomes ever more desperate…
What I really liked about Summertime in the Garden of Eden is that it wasn’t gimmicky. This wasn’t just a sort of pseudo-Gone With The Wind with dudes in dresses. It engages deeply and intelligently with the sexist, racist, and homophobic context of its historical situation and offers a critique. As Ash Flanders and Declan Greene write in the program: “Many of these texts feature incredibly problematic representations of gender, race, and sexuality, all of which call to be addressed in the act of restaging… We’re interested in how Australian audiences (of both cinema and theatre) – in 2013 – negotiate these difficult historical remnants, and how they inform the values of the present.” If the goal of the show was to provoke this kind of thought, I think it succeeds. This race- and gender-bending restaging highlights the marginalisation of some of the characters in this antebellum genre, creating a sort of Brechtian verfremdungseffekt. I found that this worked particularly well when dealing with issues of race. Genevieve Giuffre, a white actress, uses a black doll (and, at one point, a hammer) to portray Mammy, highlighting the ways in which black characters in this genre are robbed of agency and an authentic voice, becoming mere convenient tools and puppets of the white characters.
I’m not sure whether it’s because of or in spite of its cleverness, but Summertime in the Garden of Eden is also incredibly funny. Like, excruciatingly funny. Ash Flanders and Declan Greene have written a brilliant script and it is wonderfully cast – Agent Cleave as Daisy May is a particular standout. It’s the kind of show I’d like to see again so I can remember all my favourite jokes (though the scene where Daisy May innocently asks Honey Sue to explain the meaning of the word “fucking” is one I’m not going to forget any time soon). If you go and see it, be prepared to laugh and laugh hard – when you’re not admiring the exquisite crocheting and macramé of the set, that is. Sisters Grimm have completely yarnbombed the SBW Stables, and it’s awesome.
This is utterly fantastic theatre. If you get a chance to see Summertime in the Garden of Eden, snatch it. It’s clever and funny and, yes, has dudes in Scarlett O’Hara style hoop skirts. And also there is a great sequence that revolves around Savage Garden’s Animal, which as we all know was a particular favourite tune in the antebellum South. I give it my most ringing and heartfelt endorsement.
Griffin Independent and Sisters Grimm, in association with Theatre Works present
SUMMERTIME IN THE GARDEN OF EDEN
Created by Ash Flanders and Declan Greene
Director Declan Greene
Venue: SBW Stables Theatre, 10 Nimrod Street, Kings Cross
Dates: 23 November – 14 December, 2013
Tickets: $35 – $28
Bookings: 02 9361 3817 | www.griffintheatre.com.au