Declan Greene (of queer punk outfit Sisters Grimm) penned this new farce about Australia's White Middle Class Homosexuals
Theatrical genres have a habit of blurring over time, due as much to innovations by brilliant playwrights as to the permeable nature of categories. Farce has very distinct indicators, but it has gradually taken on characteristics associated with the Comedy of Manners; stock characters, physical buffoonery, and complex plotting now combine with witty wordplay and biting social satire to create a hybrid genre, a blend of high and low comedy.
Melburnians will see a lot of farce on our main stages this year, with The Play that Goes Wrong running at the Comedy Theatre, and Noises Off openingat MTC later in the year. Malthouse kick us off with Declan Greene’s The Homosexuals, or Faggots. It starts, in the mode of a Yasmina Reza play, within the conventions of social satire: a well-off gay couple recount their horror at reading a restaurant menu that lists ‘faggots’ as a dish. The discovery that faggots in this case refers to a kind of northern English meatball barely dents their outrage.
As a conceit for a play, it’s distinctly underdone. Not that this matters much, because Greene ditches the idea entirely and jumps a couple of months ahead, to Mardi Gras night. Editor of an influential gay blog, Warren (Simon Burke) and his long-ago transitioned transgendered bestie Diana (Genevieve Lemon) are preparing to go to a fancy dress party, the theme of which is “politically incorrect”, to the disgust of Warren’s husband Kim (Simon Corfield), a gender studies academic. But an interview with Bae Bae (Mama Alto), a well-known transgender activist, has to take place first. When a thief enters to rob the house and is mistaken for the prickly activist, hilarity ensues.
Well, that’s the idea. Sadly, The Homosexuals, or Faggots is largely unfunny and undisciplined. Certain elements, with doors slamming and people bounding about, are ostensibly farcical, but as rendered here wouldn’t look out of place in a local middle school. Farce requires technical precision and immaculate comic timing, none of which is on display; instead we get costumes that function as cheap sight gags – Nazi drag queens and suicide bombers, anyone? – and the modern equivalent of a pie in the face. These are the most superficial trappings of farce, without the meticulous architecture that makes this kind of work so fiendishly satisfying.
As a comedy of manners it’s almost worse. Writing down aphorisms from lesser Wilde plays and tossing them in the air would produce more wit, more relevant skewering of sociopolitical sacred cows, than anything Greene attempts here. The single moment when Kim, mistaking a Hansonite bigot for an ultra-left firebrand, interprets a rightwing agenda through the lens of academic politesse, is so inspired it only draws attention to the spinelessness of the rest of the satire. Any chance the work has to explore the right’s tendency to defensiveness versus the left’s tendency to pettiness in the current “offence wars” is dropped in favour of bludgeoning didacticism. Lemon’s speech at the end, decrying the lack of respect for AIDS-era gays, is out of tune with the tone of the whole, as if Greene had decided at the last minute for a bit of gravitas he has not earned.
The performers largely do their best with the confused text, but only Corfield brings the requisite pace and pathos needed. His transformation through gender confusion could almost ring true if the playwright in any way believed in his journey. Burke is a winning presence, but can do little with the rich-daddy-who-can’t-keep-his-dick-in-his-pants role. Alto successfully traverses the dual roles of activist and thief, but Lemon is cut adrift by the impossible demands of an underwritten and grating part.
Director Lee Lewis allows for far too many longueurs and moments of imprecision, and Marg Horwell’s design is highly problematic; it picks up one aspect of the script – namely the awkward and impersonal taste of the nouveau riche – but renders the space virtually unplayable. Farce needs room to breathe, and the cramped, multi-level set constantly works against the actors and slows the action.
Malthouse Theatre have had a bad run with sexual identity politics of late, after Edward II last year. Where that production was reductive and belligerent, this is poorly constructed and largely joyless. For a play whose subject matter promises topicality and provocation, The Homosexuals, or Faggots is shallow and boring. Crucially, given the centrality of offence to the plot, it is timorous and inoffensive. As one character says, “A farce of a farce.”
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