One day, a conservative snore of a middle-aged white bloke aspiring to be PM will use Bron Batten’s Waterloo as an example of why the arts shouldn’t be funded. He won’t have seen the show and will have only ever have been to a matinee of Cats because he never recovered from the leftie horror of his high-school production of Don’s Party. Meanwhile, wonderful people who go to theatre will continue to be thrilled that she had a three-month government-funded residency in 2015 where she was given a grungy studio in Paris and spent her time eating cheese, drinking wine and having sex.
The direct result of this residency was a show called Onstage Dating. She’s since been on 112 onstage dates in three countries. With a new date from her audience each night, it’s developed into a remarkably astute work about the hope of dating, about giving strangers a chance to show their real self, and especially about how men relate to women in public. Waterloo is about one of the 60 real-life dates she went on in Paris. It was with someone she would never have met were it not for dating apps.
He’s in the military and a right-wing, Thatcher-loving conservative; he’d be invited to dinner with the pollie trying to dump arts funding. If it’s not obvious, Batten explains that she’s at the thinking-about-being-vegan side of the inner-city left; us who marched for #ClimateStrike earlier that day.
He’s also very tall, looks a bit like Kevin McCloud from Grand Designs and has a huge… knowledge of wine.
So, what happens when a groovy performance artist, who begins her story by being blindfolded and trying to stab balloons, dates a man who represents things that she despises? Hint: their story won’t become a rom-com starring the next Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant.
His identity is kept secret; this is Batten’s story, not his. It’s also no surprise that he kept secrets from her. His rank is significant, and he’s been in war and killed people. People who will never know the bliss of good wine and a Netflix and chill marathon with Kevin McCloud.
We may sing how war is stupid and people are stupid, but is military intervention to stop children from being raped stupid? There’s always more to the story than we see. And more secrets.
Even though most of Batten’s work is personal, this is her most vulnerable show to date. She opens herself up to be judged morally, politically and ethically. My own internal moral compass cleared her throat to “tut tut” at times and was very quickly silenced. It’s so easy to say what lines we will never cross, but we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t see how we many of those lines we leap over when actually faced with a choice.
As she talks directly to the audience, it’s easy to get to know and like Batten. And to be on her side, but this isn’t really a dating story. It’s about questioning the things we stand up for. Like Onstage Dating, it’s about making assumptions about people and what happens when you dig deeper; yes, you should always deep-Google your dates.
There are two scenes near the end of the show that can’t be discussed in a first review. Both involve the audience making choices. One left me internally begging people not to make it. But it’s astonishing what people will do to fill a silence. Or what they do because they think it’s safe. Or what they’ve always wanted to do but never had the opportunity. In less than three minutes, lines are crossed.
I didn’t make the second choice either because I sat and watched and wanted to hug everyone who made it, including those who made the first choice.
The guts of Waterloo is far more than a story about unlikely lovers. It asks us to look at our very personal choices and ask ourselves if other people’s choices are as wrong or right as we thought. Or any of our business.
If you’re worried about it being a very serious show about mind-hurting morality, it is. But there are lots of laughs and balloons. And she talks about sex. And there’s an explosion. A real one. It’s the best. And there’s a sing along. To Queen. It’s also the best.