Photos – Tim Grey
How do you review a work of theatre that is all about taking the torch to critics who write scathing reviews? For that matter, what kind of approach could you use to critique a show which is itself largely structured around the metatextual premise that the performers are reading out a review of the very thing they are currently performing? When a show is essentially pre-empting its own reviewers, how do you even begin to review something like that?
… I guess, maybe you just… don’t…?
…okay, okay, fine. I’ll try. The show isn’t so much hard to describe as it is difficult to discuss without giving away rather a lot of the surprises that are instrumental to what makes it work. The piece has a fundamental undercurrent of intellectual rigour and is a sardonically angry, deconstructive pushback against theatre critics, overlaid with some delightfully puerile shock-tactic staging, designed to unapologetically offer the theatre-reviewing community a firm rebuttal.
ReBUTTal? Get it? Because this show is all about bare butts. Bums. Arses. Dem Asses. Dat Ass. Wait, am I even allowed to swear in these reviews? All these years and I don’t think I’ve ever checked.
Ah, hell… I’m trying to get into the post-ironic swing of the show’s own spirit of critical engagement, deranged humour and unapologetic scatology, but I’ll never be as funny as these ladies.
Without spoiling too much of what actually happens on stage, the show takes some very unexpected turns, beginning with the three writer/performers all crouching behind a table and presenting their own naked buttocks to the audience to personify the heads of theatre critics, which they emotively bob and waggle as though in speech, while reading out prior bad reviews, some possibly real, but largely written as part of the show’s own self-reflexive ouroboros.
Because theatre critics “talk out of their arses”, right…?
I mean, that is the central joke, and by god they are running with it. If watching these very funny, very clever ladies miming with their own bare bums is something you’re either going to find morally offensive or groanworthily on-the-nose, then the show is only going to go downhill from there for you.
If you’re unfamiliar with the work of Zoë Coombs Marr, Ursula Martinez and Adrienne Truscott, this show probably won’t come as quite so much of a shock, although this definitely seems to push the envelope further. The show continues themes from previous works of theatre they have devised and starred in, which took a type of of highly literate and intelligent punk-feminist blowtorch to the stolid, bourgeois theatre establishment. Square in their sights are those critics who unwaveringly champion the “well-made play”, safe comfortable entertainment that’s not too challenging in theme, and certainly never experimental or provocative in terms of form or adaptation.
In particular they have dished out some deliciously excoriating licks to the enshrined notions of “the canon” of classic Eurocentric theatre practice. They notably question if the oft-declared “universality” of Shakespeare, Ibsen and the like is truly reflective of and relevant to the wider human experience… suggesting perhaps that it only seems that way if you are a straight white cisgendered male, and possibly even one from an earlier century, at that.
While many of these preoccupations carry across, in some respects their new production Wild Bore is both narrower and broader in its conceptual focus. To a very large extent, the show is poking holes, or perhaps more aptly, heaping shit on theatre critics. Seemingly not all theatre critics, to be fair, as they do not systematically attack the entire framework of critical discourse or industry of reviewing theatre, and they even pay some lip-service to the notion that a well-written negative review can be an entertaining read.
They appear to hone in on two particular targets for their satirical fury. While seemingly enjoying the implicit humour in a well-turned phrase from a venom-dipped pen, they clearly take issue with the tendency of many modern critics to revel in the nastiness and hyperbole of writing a scathing review. They expose the impulse that pursues making “the bad review as artform”, those reviewers who seem to put more effort into trying to be entertainingly withering and creatively vicious, than to engage in any form of good-faith substantive critical assessment.
The wider aspect that they delve into with more detail, which certainly ties back to concerns from their past work, is the streak of conservative, pearl-clutching outrage at innovation or politicised content that seems baked into many critics. More than this, though, is an unraveling of the condescending, willfully obtuse, and often implicitly misogynistic tenor of much theatre reviewing.
Two running gags in the show derive from quoting (presumably real) bad reviews of their own prior shows, which rather blithely asserted that some of the more oblique or symbolic elements of their stagecraft were done “for no apparent reason”, or seemingly not “by dramaturgical design”. They get a lot of mileage out of requoting these phrases over and over again in different contexts, to uproarious effect. But the message is clear – to expose the kind of churlish, self-satisfied attitude in some theatre criticism, that presumes to afford a lack of sufficiently intellectualised intent behind their creative decisions.
It is, almost invariably, an imperious presumption that these young women making their own works of original theatre are pretentious fools who lack the craft and creativity to imbue deeper meaning to their work. It is probably, Coombs Marr, Martinez and Truscott seem to suggest, because the critics in question either didn’t get it, or couldn’t be bothered giving them enough benefit of the doubt to try and tease out their possible intent.
This in turns spills over into a lot of wider parodic conversation discussing the debased role of women in theatre, through various bizarre and hilarious theatricalisations. Much is made of the lack of respect and grinding difficulty of making one’s own way, leading many women to simply give up, while the web of issues around the use and ownership of the nude female form in theatrical contexts is aired.
However, as the internally cross-referencing loops of meta-madness curls ever further in upon themselves, and jags off in ever more surreal directions, these three women do not leave their own potential pretentiousness immune to interrogation. Introducing further unexpected devices to the show, they question whether they themselves, despite being women, are nevertheless still comparatively armoured in the privilege of their own white cis bodies. This spurs some pointed questioning of their own place, and indeed the audience’s, in the framework of the multicultural and diverse aims of the Sydney Festival under Wesley Enoch. The show wryly observes that having some diversity in positions of power over arts programming does indeed have a tangible effect in terms of diversifying the representation of the acts and theatre makers who thus gain access to funding and a platform to reach new audiences.
Wild Bore is not a play, in any conventionally narrative sense of the term. It is theatre, certainly, it is comedy, most definitely, and it is most assuredly political. Theatre as protest, as discussion, as polemic, as rebuttal; a bizarre, profane, stimulating, at times revolting and frequently hilarious grand guignol of highbrow ideas, low blows, bad taste, hot takes and bum jokes. And just a lot of bums, generally. So many bums. Boobs too. But mostly bums.
Definitely not for everyone, but very much deserving to be seen, considered, and discussed.
Malthouse/Sydney Festival presents
by Zoë Coombs Marr, Ursula Martinez and Adrienne Truscott
Venue: Carriageworks Bay 20 | 245 Wilson Street, Eveleigh NSW
Dates: 25 – 28 January 2018