Beyond Priscilla is an unusual and audacious proposition for a play, based on a real undertaking that was unusual and audacious itself. In 2010, gay rights advocate Daniel Witthaus did an epic road tour of Australia, taking his anti-homophobia educational program “Beyond That’s So Gay” to the far corners of the country. His account of that trip, Beyond Priscilla the book, gives a sweeping picture of queer life in rural and remote Australia.
It is a fascinating and inspiring story, although by its nature difficult to stage, and this adaptation by Gavin Roach (I Can’t Say The F Word, Confessions of a Grindr Addict) is a quaint theatrical construction. A lean cast of four actors aims to recreate Witthaus’ journey, each taking turns to narrate as Witthaus himself, while the other three bustle in and out playing the host of people met along the way, in a flurry of costume changes and character vignettes. In a sense it’s documentary theatre, with the dialogue drawn from interviews with real people. However the challenges of four actors trying to distinguish a host of characters, each with only a sprig of stage time, leads to them being acted very broadly. They feel like caricatures rather than the real people whose words they are speaking. While this can bring moments of levity, a more naturalistic style would have been better suited.
The characters’ words certainly don’t need any theatrical embellishment to be interesting. From heart-warming family stories and sweet romances to tales of stark isolation and insidious bigotry, the vignettes cover a wide gammut of experiences and emotions. They provide a window into an Australia that anyone who’s lived in the country will find acutely, at times painfully, familiar, and which may be eye-opening to an urban audience.
With the script eschewing a linear structure and more characters than you can shake a stick at, the impression is of a frantic whirl of people and places. At times, it could do with taking some time to breathe. You don’t get much feel for the locations and some of the characters are whisked by so fast you don’t really know who they are or what context they’re speaking in. Even Witthaus himself doesn’t emerge that clearly as a character and you come away with only a vague sense of what he was actually doing.
The play also doesn’t show the diversity of queer experience which it promises to. Despite liberal use of the acronym GLBTI, it’s mostly about gay men, with a slightly lesser focus on lesbians. There’s only one explicitly bisexual character, who gets a brief appearance late in the piece. Likewise there is only one transgender character, a trans lady played in a rather insensitive casting choice by a bearded male actor in a wig.
At the end my feelings about it all are mixed. The dialogue gets a lot of weight from being authentic and there are times when it elicits very strong emotions. Yet it’s hard to feel like the content’s being given due service by the way it’s been treated theatrically. Still, it’s an earnest and energetic piece, which expresses an important message. In spreading awareness of Witthaus’ work and offering a view of rural queer life to audiences who might otherwise have no insight into it, it’s doing a good thing. Like a bumpy road trip to an interesting destination, it’s an uneven ride but a worthwhile journey.
Beyond Priscilla: The Play
by Gavin Roach | based on the book by Daniel Witthaus
Directed by Lauren Hopley
Venue: Gasworks Studio Theatre
Dates: 20 – 30 January 2016
Tickets: $25 – $22