Sydney Festival's Spiegeltent show is Riverdance meets La Soirée meets Marriage Equality rally
Panti Bliss has been Ireland’s favourite and most politically active drag queen for two decades, but it wasn’t until 2014 that the rest of world learnt her name. Her comments about homophobia in the Irish media became the subject of a scandal known as ‘Pantigate’, and a subsequent speech went viral. The following year, she was a major force in Ireland’s same-sex marriage referendum and was profiled in a documentary, The Queen of Ireland.
Panti is the star attraction of one of Sydney Festival’s biggest shows this year: the one designed to keep the Hyde Park’s festival village pumping for most of January, while touching on social issues.
Riot belongs to a very specific sub-genre of alt-cabaret and adult variety shows: the woke, politically active one. Not only are these shows a response to what’s happening in the world, they’re a response to the genre’s own frequent shortcomings – its fetishisation of the exotic, regressive gender politics and homophobia.
While tackling all of that, Riot is a celebration of all things Irish, and constantly flips images and identities from Ireland on their heads: we see Irish dancers performing to Major Lazer and the Eurythmics (Philip Connaughton and Deirdre Griffin), and we also see an unexpectedly sexy striptease by a former Gaelic football player turned aerialist Ronan Brady. One of the funniest and most ridiculous sections is performed by Britain’s Got Talent winners Lords of Strut and involves pool noodles, cling wrap and Jesus.
The soundtrack for much of the show is performed by a vocal quartet, made up of three women and one man (the same combination as Irish supergroup The Corrs – coincidence?) who perform in tight harmony and even tighter costumes.
There are two major voices in the show: Panti and spoken word artist Emmet Kirwan. Both use their monologues to attempt to inspire change in the audience through storytelling. Panti’s speech about her childhood aspiration to be Farrah Fawcett is particularly affecting.
Many of Riot’s acts are impressive and the show is nearly always fun, but it frequently fails to deliver on its political promise. It certainly knows how to talk the talk – Panti and Kirwan both deliver inspirational calls to arms in ways that might be a little vague but encourage direct action – but it struggles to walk the walk.
The show is very male-heavy – not necessarily a problem – but seeks to speak for women rather than allowing women a platform to speak for themselves. Early on, Panti performs a lip-sync to a cut-up track of melodramatic women’s monologues, from Gypsy, to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, to Tyra Banks’ infamous “We were all rooting for you” speech. Soon after, Kirwan performs a piece about a young woman who is denigrated by men and becomes pregnant, unable to access healthcare. It’s written to show the pressures faced by young Irish women.
Both acts are strong and neither is offensive in any way, but their side-by-side inclusion in a show largely absent of women’s voices (Megan Riordan is the only woman who speaks, and only briefly) clashes with and undermines the core message of the show.
At the performance Time Out attended, the Spiegeltent was running late in setting up the stage, and the performance started almost an entire hour after the advertised time. By then, some audience members had been lining up outside for 90 minutes, but in this show with plenty of direct address, no performer acknowledged the situation. The lateness is certainly not the company’s fault, but their decision to not engage with it made this particular performance feel like parts were on autopilot.
The artists have enough charm to get the show over the line in these less-than-ideal circumstances, but there’s still a sense that Riot could be much more progressive, revolutionary and riotous than it actually is.