Cécile was happy to go home, saying Australia was too heavy for her liking. There was something there, like the naked ugliness of Australia stirred a colonial guilt that she didn’t have to face daily in Belgium, what with their gay-marriage-since-2003 situation and their great geographical distance from Congo.
- in which theatre is no country for old men
At a certain point in life, it becomes very hard to work in theatre and remain impartial. The Critic watched Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. at the Malthouse feeling personally aggrieved by its failures. Janice Mueller’s direction drew deliberately and consciously from the arsenal of directorial choices that were specific to central and north-western European postdramatic theatre between 2000 and 2007, to the point where it could have been a painstaking historical reproduction, had it been intentionally referenced.
Every stage image could be traced, very specifically, to a time and place. A range of simple, trope-y costumes (ballerina, office worker, princess), which had travelled from Forced Entertainment in Sheffield in mid-nineties all the way via Nature Theater of Oklahoma in New York in the 2000s. The flat chorus line of four performers, each doing their own disconnected thing, was a gesture recognisably borrowed from Berlin’s Volksbühne even back in 2000, when Benedict Andrews first did it on the Australian soil, in a production of Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life for STC. Ditto the black-and-white text projection pulsating on the back wall: GALVANISE. The actors changed between scenes on the set; their little make-up tables, tucked into the corners of the stage, were obviously an empty gesture—a make-up table?—meant in the same spirit as Jerome Bel’s dancers drinking water between choreographed pieces in The Show Must Go On, the anti-spectacle which outraged audiences wherever it played between 2001 and 2008. And so forth.
When they premiered, those works were scandalous, confronting, dangerous: people stormed out of the theatres, demanded money back. Kristy Edmunds brought a great deal of this stuff to Melbourne in her four years as artistic director of Melbourne Festival, from 2005–2008, and was viciously attacked by the local newspapers for programming ‘elitist fringe’. Very few local theatre-makers joined in on the pursuit of anti-spectacle at the time, such was the risk of pissing people off.
To watch those iconic decisions reassembled on stage ten years on, too late to make a claim to a common zeitgeist, but too early to be a homage, was somehow intimately painful to the Critic. She wanted to sit down with Matt Lutton and remind him of that summer when they crossed paths at a zebra crossing in Neukölln and started laughing, back when it felt like half of Melbourne’s theatre was permanently stationed in Berlin; back when they were just theatre kids. This was before Matt was running the Malthouse, though that would come surprisingly soon.
She wanted to remind Matt how much they wanted to bring a certain spirit to Australia: the spirit, not the wholesale footwork. One very glorious summer of 2012, Declan Greene and the Critic watched a 12-hour take on Ibsen in Berlin’s Volksbühne that included a throng of zombies trampling all over the audience, audience members kidnapped, and an hour-long bricking up of the fourth wall. It was a night they never forgot (and it was a night alright: the show finished at 4am), full of audience members washing zombie footprints off in the toilets and demanding ticket refunds, full of smartphones whipped out in the theatre to take photos of the madness of it all; it was a night when these two theatre nerds forgot to be self-conscious. They talked about that night, outside the Malthouse, after Revolt. They talked about how much they had wanted to bring that back to Melbourne, that immense freedom.
Freedom in the theatre is a very particular thing. No other artform liberates as truly as theatre does, because theatre is an exchange between living bodies; theatre is a communion, theatre is people coming together to do something. Theatre is as real as any other hour of one’s life, except it is an open, unbounded hour. Alice Birch’s text, a medley of postdram gestures, was unbounded alright; but this production was a supermarket of yesterday’s avant-garde.
- in which we unbound
The Critic noticed how old they had all become in the foyer of Theatre Works, waiting to go into Fraught Outfit’s Exodus I. Gary Abrahams was there, and they had a subdued chat about how there is only so many years that one can spend making independent theatre for artistic glory and a share of the box office. They exchanged a few cautious questions about the show they were about to see, and how many more Adena Jacobs would have the energy to make.
Exodus I opened with a tidy rectangle of crushed styrofoam, a soundscape, and a hand protruding from the white debris. Within seconds, it was there, recognisable: precision. Jacobs, one of the luminaries of Melbourne’s independent theatre wave of the late 2000s, the generation raised by Kristy Edmunds and frequent trips to Berlin, created a work of exquisite magic: two small children, rubber masks, a gingerbread house, a handful of silent gestures, and somehow, in it, a retelling of The Book of Exodus, the one where Moses takes the Jews out of Egypt following the ten plagues. The rare piece of spoken text, read by one of the children, is the instructions to the Jews that would lead to The Feast of the Firstborn, the commemoration of the tenth and final plague, and the salvation of the Israelite firstborns. The entire work is only fifty minutes long, but it is somehow infinite.
At a time when the theatre of central and north-western Europe was destroying the spectacle by dressing the performers in trope-y costumes and projecting words onto the back wall, Melbourne theatre created a distinct and unique aesthetic, highly intellectual as well as physically rigorous, gesturally minimalist, and obsessed with drilling deep into cultural heritage. Exodus I was a perfect example of what that used to look like: it excavated the gruesome violence and inspected the metaphor of the traditions that followed. It was elegant, quiet and, above all, ambitious in scope and skill.
- in which we touch base with our ballooning cast and many-threaded plotlines
Nico had called the month before, still in Germany, somehow still doing his drag shows in the dingy underground bars of Berlin, to say that Club was closing down. The little gay bar in Neukölln owned by their friend Derek had finally capitulated, squeezed on all sides: by the rising rents; by the growing conflicts between the former kids who had opened it, no longer as young and as prepared to be cool and penniless; by the admission that they were financially illiterate when they signed their lease (because what 25-year-old American understands a German rental contract?); by the changing tastes of the new kids. Club had given them their first taste of adulthood, getting high in their very own Kiez bar, shaping their very own urban cool. Everyone knew Club: Nico performed there, Karen exhibited there, the Critic danced there, even Declan once did a rare drag performance in the back room. They celebrated Derek’s birthday there, in late 2015, surrounded on all sides with pop-up spaces that had $7 beers and Instagram accounts, and said to each other: “This, this, is old Berlin!” and then laughed incredulously that they had become people who think theirs was the only authentic time in history. And now it was closing. Nico was calling to say that Derek owed him money, and was irked about it in that short-tempered way typical of people who do a lot of amphetamines.
Karen sent a postcard from Lake Como, where she was holidaying with the Berlin-based family whose kids she was nannying-in-English-language—a postcard breezy and aloof. She didn’t mention Club’s closing—her Berlin was made up of largely different places, those with Instagram accounts.
The Critic ran into Liz in the VCA staff room. Liz who still hadn’t left her Melbourne rental nor her contract jobs, but who was now managing extended creative residencies in Europe every year. Liz was enthusing about Croatia—she had been!, the women are so strong and sassy!, what an amazing place!, the theatre!, the politics!, the food! It was the never-ending high of someone who had forgotten balance.
They didn’t see much theatre in 2017—it was mostly shit—but one time she did, the Critic ran into Barney in some new gallery space in a back alley in Fitzroy. It struck her, at the sight of this man in his forties surrounded with new Theatre Kids who thought that even the rubbish they saw that night was awesome because theatre is an artform without memory—that she did not want to be the lone forty-year-old in a back-alley theatre.
It was not exactly a sad feeling: between the art that they made, events they ran, and words they wrote, they had made a beautiful world for themselves—and lucky is the person who manages to centre themselves in their own life, as they had. But time had happened. As far as the Critic could see it, her once glorious circle of friends was fraying, splintering, into those who would burn out with the scene and those who would graduate from it wiser.
- in which yes there was freedom, but also there was terror
The Critic went to see Merciless Gods because she had heard many good things about Little Ones Theatre. “It’s our tenth production,” said Eugyeene Teh in the foyer. A new generation of theatre-makers had grown up. Little Ones had become renowned for their slick productions (they were a designer-led trio) and queer aesthetic, somewhat in parallel with the more freewheeling-backyard-spectacle of Declan’s Sisters Grimm, and Gary Abrahams’ cerebral adaptations of key texts. Between the three of them, almost the entire back catalogue of LGBT culture got put on stage.
Merciless Gods was a collection of short stories by Christos Tsiolkas, invariably brutal, all written in that decade bookmarked by the birth of rave on one side, and the Cronulla riots on the other. There were cynical people tossing between making a lot of money and hate-fucking their friends. There were awful, malicious European parents, living fantasies of former artistic glory, or of patriarchal order of their home villages. There was that classic Tsiolkas rage.
“And there were so many mentions of ‘thick cocks.’” said Angus once they left. “Tsiolkas really likes to talk about being fucked with a thick cock.”
All of Tsiolkas’ characters always, including women and girls, in one way or another end up being fucked by thick cocks. The sex in his prose is as copious as it is ungentle, be it heterosexual or homosexual (‘straight’ or ‘gay’ somehow seem improper words here, for the sex is always curiously un-socialised, always heterotopian rather than fully enmeshed within loving relationships). It is always jeans unzipped, panties rolling to the ground, cunts filled, cocks thick, mouths moaning, fingers pushed inside people. None of this was ever extensively dissected by Australian literary criticism, but when The Slap became a global best-seller, Melissa Denes wrote in the London Review of Books that everyone in the book was filled with the same pent-up, violent anger, and everyone was having the same sex, which was porn sex, and that the combination of all this identi-sex and identi-anger made the book so much less than the sum of its parts. For what it’s worth, when The Slap came out, the Critic thought it was the first book that described what was happening in Melbourne. Yet still.
“I enjoyed this so much less than I thought I would.” she said. “I feel like I should like Tsiolkas because The Slap was great, because he’s a queer wog like me, because his politics are good, because what enrages him also enrages me. But there is such unrelenting bleakness to his writing. And there is so much self-hatred. All this punishing sex. All this internalised homophobia.”
At this phrase, Nick, Angus’s partner, stood up: “You noticed it too?”
Nick, younger than both, was a medical student and not a Theatre Person, which made him refreshingly honest theatre company: “No one was happy. No one had happy relationships, or happy sex. It was so bleak.”
“Well, to his defence, that used to be your LGBT story-telling,” said Angus. “People dying. Of AIDS, of gay bashing, of broken hearts. Well of Loneliness… Being gay was tragic.”
“You know, I intellectually know that this was the case,” Nick said gently, yet steadily, “and I know this is part of our history. But I’m really happy I wasn’t there at the time.”
“It was not a good time,” said the Critic. “This whole idea that you can be gay and happy is incredibly, incredibly recent. It was before Queer Eye, before Will and Grace, before The L Word, before Brokeback-fucking-Mountain. When Merciless Gods was written, AIDS had just decimated gay men, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell became law, Ellen came out and lost her TV show…”
“Ellen lost her show?” Nick stopped, confused.
“She came out on her sitcom, her sitcom was canned. How do you not know that? It was a big deal.”
Nick was still confused: “Ellen had a sitcom?”
- in which we were asked to vote on other people’s civil liberties
The year was not exactly going splendidly to begin with, but then Malcolm Turnbull announced a postal survey on same-sex marriage.
- in which there are angels
The battle tales were great. Glyn remembered multiple years of annually producing eight professional shows on no budget. Adena remembered forty grant applications, all rejected. Carl talked about the early geo-location of patron data that allowed Hayloft Project some modicum of audience research. Adena said: “We have just been asked, by Theatre Works, for our contact list, and we didn’t have one. I suppose everyone has one now? We used to just make a show… and people would somehow come.” A lot of the work of advertising was done by blogs, remembered the Critic, people who wrote three or four major essays a week, as if they were on staff at London Book Review, rather than moonlighting after their café shift. Finally, Glyn said: “We pushed each other to do better, to excel, and we did. We did amazing things on no money. But that story cannot be told without a chapter on burnout. On relationship breakdowns. On debt. I feel like we looked at the next generation and said, hey, see if you can do better than us? And they said, nah! They didn’t even try. They’ve retreated into making theatre selfies.” Before leaving, Adena reminded them that Gary Abrahams was in rehearsal with Angels in America.
- in which mental health and memory are like two sides of the same coin
That year, Hannah Gadsby won all major comedy awards with Nanette, a one-woman show about growing up lesbian in Tasmania in the nineties, and the fundamentally dysfunctional ways of using comedy as therapy in the face of hate. June and the Critic made a healthy, informed, fully responsible decision not to see Nanette, for the sake of their emotional health. Overall, it became a year of avoiding theatre. Everything was emotionally overwrought, confessional, too personal, de-metaphored. They read books instead.
Funny how much free time suddenly appears when one isn’t spending four-to-five nights a week at the theatre. They read Audre Lorde and Rebecca Solnit. They read Judith Hermann and Lundy Bancroft. They read queer histories, feminist histories. Medical manuals on partner abuse. They read books about gaslighting, about toxic masculinity, and rape culture. A bully was leading the free world and they were in need of peer-reviewed answers. They read a book that said that the trauma with strongest connection to addiction and depression is chronic recurrent humiliation, i.e. bullying, and that LGBT communities are communities of profoundly traumatised people. They read a book that said what makes men abusive is not addiction or depression or terrible childhoods, but belief in their own entitlement to another human being’s emotional and sexual labour. They shared books. It was a year of Donald Drumpf, and then became a year of ‘It’s OK to Vote No’. It was a year so bleak in so many ways that they retreated, away from the moment-to-moment-ness of theatre, political or otherwise, and into long, large timeframes: histories, historiographies.
They ventured out to see their friend’s Chris’s show at Fringe, another first-person confessional. One of the last things he said in the show, after that same thing about chronic recurrent humiliation, was a quote from Judith Hermann: “Bearing witness is an act of solidarity.”
It wasn’t a quote that pardoned all confessional writing; but it did give it context.
- in which we will be citizens
Tony Kushner wrote Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes in two parts, one on each side of 1990. In 1988, Millenium Approaches, Prior Walter is diagnosed with the gay plague. His partner of four years, Louis, promptly leaves him. Louis starts sleeping with a legal clerk who is a married Mormon in deep denial about his sexual preferences. Meanwhile Roy Cohn, the McCarthyite lawyer, real-life neoliberal attack hound, employer to Mormon clerk, closeted sodomite, is diagnosed with AIDS or, as he menacingly instructs his doctor, liver cancer—because Roy Cohn is not a faggot. In Millenium Approaches, the world falls apart.
In 1991, Perestroika.
Together, the two are seven hours long, spanning a few years dense with social change, a sweeping transition from the bleakest selfishness of the American eighties to the renewed hope of Perestroika. The dramatic story is a vast complication on many levels, personal, historical, mythological, phantasmagorical. It is as high as it gets—among other things, Angels is a meditation on durability and the purposes of religion, from Judaism to Mormons. But it also takes its sweet time sitting in the gutter: there are literal flying angels, pill-popping Mormon wives, handjobs in Central Park, and let’s not forget that gay breakups in 1988 were stuff of pulp dramas, more than of respectable art. The romance itself is cathartically inelegant. Louis is a coward. The protagonist: a terrible, inexcusable coward who abandons his partner because he hasn’t dealt with death even on the conceptual level. Prior, HIV-positive before any effective treatment exists, precipitates into physical, and then mental, ruin. He starts having visions, or is perhaps just delirious, and as part two rolls around he is walking around Manhattan claiming to be a prophet. Among many things, Angels is a comedy. It is something to say in theatre’s favour—as an artform, as an industry—that this seminal, Pulitzer-winning play is in some ways a triumph of form, but in other ways completely demented.
They saw the play over two nights, most (but not all) of the audience coming back on the second. There is a TV version of Angels, with great Meryl Streep and Al Pacino, but you haven’t seen Angels until you have seen it in the theatre. Gary Abrahams’ cast was not the most self-assured, and the staging was lo-fi and pokey compared to the incipient Broadway extravaganzas. It felt like everything had been stretched to a shoestring—the budget, the time, the talent, the creative stamina. But this is the magic of theatre. As hour after hour rolled by, dialogue after dialogue, as the play swished from a Valium fantasy by a despairing Mormon housewife to an angel crashing through Prior Walter’s ceiling, as Louis debated politics while also cruising in Central Park and Roy Cohn screamed in agony, hallucinating his own victims on his deathbed, the vastness and humanity accrued in the performance space, together with fatigue, together with the smell of sweat, together with that incredible sense of community that grows out of sharing an experience with strangers. There were breaks. They drank wine. They were introduced to friends of friends. They moved around to see better. It was seven hours of a play that included lines such as: “Greetings, Prophet; The great work begins!” And somewhere in it, a very gay nurse who has despised Roy Cohn his entire life, forces the unbelieving Jew Louis to perform the Kaddish on Cohn’s dead body.
The stories of Merciless Gods happen not much after the events of Angels. And yet its tone of self-centred and nasty bitterness is entirely absent from Angels, even though Angels describes evil people and acts of harm, even though Tsiolkas describes a far less doomed time.
There was an odd camaraderie of bearing witness to this quintessentially gay play, in a room full of artists and queers, as around them raged an expensive and nasty postal survey. It was late when the show finished, but the room gave a standing ovation, in unison. The inaudible lines, the wonky accents, who cared. They had just had an experience. This, this was why one went to the theatre: to know that something is a classic because many people have come to see it spoken on stage; to see life events re-presented in a small, enclosed space, and know that it matters, because it matters to many. To experience a missive from 1988 in 2017 articulated again, again.
They were quiet, afterwards. They drank wine in Supper Club and talked about the people who might vote No.
“I was confident at the start,” said Nick, “but now I’m not. I think we might lose.”
“We’re living at a time of election surprises from the edge of sanity. Everything is possible,” said Angus. Angus and Nick had just gotten engaged. How strange it was to think that, in their very short lifetime, they had gone from LGBT holocaust to an almost gluttonous gay normality, all via Ellen’s sitcom. And yet here it was, the postal survey.
“I wrote down the last line, it was surprisingly relevant,” said Nick. “What was it? Here it is: We will be citizens.”
“If the vote is Yes,” Angus reminded him.
“I think we will be fine,” said the Critic, who thought of social change as compound interest. “If this referendum fails, the next one will pass. Or the one after. Think about the work of the people before us, generations of activists, artists, the people who threw rocks, the people who got arrested. Think of all that effort, accruing. It doesn’t go away. It stays. We are on the right side of history.”
It hadn’t been the best time always. There had been good art, Ellen’s coming out, there had been Perestroika and Tony Kushner, there had been Club and Berlin, and drag shows in basements, and they were young and immortal. It would still be months before they would know the results of the postal plebiscite. But they had each other, and they were no longer children; adulthood had brought them the realisation that the present moment cannot last, that things always change.
When she came home, she looked up those last lines of Kushner’s. There they were.
The fountain’s not flowing now, they turn it off in the winter, ice in the pipes. But in the summer it’s a sight to see. I want to be around to see it. I plan to be. I hope to be.
This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.
You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.
And I bless you: More Life.
The Great Work Begins.
 As promised in the previous episode of The Critic.
 See previous episode of ‘The Critic’.
 See episode one of ‘The Critic’, in which we reviewed Gary Abrahams’s take on Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, and were upset by its cross-dressing unfeminism, the naïve theatre babes that we were then. Gary would turn out to be one of us, not one of them, but who knew it then?
 Melissa Denes, “Freakazoid,” London Review of Books, vol. 32, no. 16 (August 2010): 26–28.
 See previous episodes of ‘The Critic’, in which the distinction is made between Theatre People and the so-called GP.
 See episode one of ‘The Critic’, which goes into some detail of what it meant to be queer in the 1990s.
 See episode seven of ‘The Critic’, which charts the very beginning of this whole sordid affair, under the reign of Tony Abbott, plague on his house, the attacks on Gayby Baby and Safe Schools in 2015, and the general regression of mainstream Australia into some sort of ultra-heterosexual moral panic. With hindsight, we will see this time as the last hurrah of neoliberal conservatism, sure. But for now, they were still riding the same wave of madness, a wave that had already damaged both their country and them.