Photo – Alicja Dobrucka
British performer Ursula Martinez is perhaps known best for her saucy circus acts. The former La Clique performer has earned a certain notoriety for one piece in particular called Hanky Panky, a burlesque magic act involving a disappearing red handkerchief. Her solo show Free Admission is a different kind of performance altogether.
It is in fact almost the diametric opposite of a striptease, as Martinez slowly obscures herself from view behind a wall which she builds brick by brick, complete with mortar, on the stage. As she builds, Martinez talks in stream of consciousness style, sharing a series of thoughts and memories. Some are whimsical vignettes or one-liners, others are more charged with emotion or social commentary. Martinez has a natural levity and bent toward humour, which she uses frequently to lighten the tone, at the same time as she dips often into revealing and sometimes harrowing personal territory.
The wall is a stark symbol of division and indeed this is a theme that runs deep throughout. Martinez addresses a range of cultural, generational and personal divides, from the impact of bigotry and war, to deconstruction of social narratives of gender and respectability, to personal musings on love and separation, youth and age, and the difference between who you want to be and who you are. A recurrent theme is that of the tiny and arbitrary differences that can cause a person to fall on one side or the other of a great divide. Martinez frequently portrays divisions as not just arbitrary but contradictory. Things are presented not as one thing or another but simultaneously both and neither. The only separation depicted as truly meaningful is the ultimate divide of life and death and even that feels uncertain. Martinez talks about deceased characters in the present tense, with the same immediacy as if they were still alive, or could be again in a moment.
Even the separation between performer and audience is questioned. The bulk of the performance happens in a kind of micro-stage built on stage, which Martinez on occasion departs from when she’s interacting with the audience rather than doing “the show”. In mocking her own theatrical contrivance, she pokes fun at the very idea of division. Her laboriously constructed wall is both a solid presence on stage and also an easily trivialised one.
While Free Admission may seem like an unusually philosophical piece to come from a performer most famed for a naughty hanky trick, Martinez has been an acclaimed creator of this style of experimental personal theatre throughout her career, starting with A Family Outing (1998), a show in which she interviewed her parents on stage. This is a continuation of that work, an expression of philosophy through exploration of self.
Frequently rousing, it is just as frequently discomfiting. Even after the triumphant finale, I come out uncertain how to feel. This sense of ambivalence seems the intended effect, perfectly in keeping with the theme of duality and contradiction. Free Admission is certainly a show that stirs the mind. Its impact is something of a slow burn, a thing to continue processing long after Martinez’ performance is over, as if the endpoint of the show itself is just another false divide.
Arts Centre Melbourne presents
Directed by Mark Whitelaw
Venue: Fairfax Studio | Arts Centre Melbourne
Dates: 31 January – 5 February 2017