The June supermoon looms heavy in the night sky above the South Eveleigh precinct on the opening night of eco-feminist sex clown Betty Grumble’s strictly 18+ contribution to the Vivid program. Once a long-disused collection of old railway sheds, now a regenerated dining and drinking destination, the crowd tonight has a particular flavour of alternative that wouldn’t be out of place at a bush doof – a fluffy red top hat included.
Inside the cavernous, groovily lit belly of Eveleigh Works – one of the world’s oldest working industrial blacksmith workshops – the tools have been set down to make way for a pop-up theatre and a bar slinging Fireball bevvies to warm our bellies. A pre-show DJ set from Hip Hop Hoe sets the mood for Enemies of Grooviness Eat Shit – a masterclass in the type of one-woman show that features full frontal nudity and body paint. It is funny, filthy, deeply felt and unapologetic.
Enemies of Grooviness made its sold-out debut in late 2020 in the intimate, shabby-chic setting of Marrickville’s Red Rattler Theatre. In keeping with Grumble’s compostable, recycling-centric ethos (which runs adjacent with her ecosexual identity, naturally) – this review borrows from that first outing, with some sparks of new life, like this higher-budget new iteration.
If you’ve seen her previous one-woman show, or womanifesto, Love and Anger (or Sex Clown Saves the World Again!) you might wonder if the Grumble has anything left to bare. Where do you go after opening a show with vulva puppetry, before excavating wells of personal grief, and summing up with a call to arms to save mother earth? In this newer marathon theatre experience, she pushes the envelope further.
“When the reviewers say this show is a big wank, they won’t be wrong,” she says at one point. She means it quite literally.
Shock tactics and nudity are common tropes for her performances, but in this show she strips away any remaining sense of the demure and placative, interlacing singing, dancing, prop work and voice distortion with stream-of-consciousness-style rants. The woman behind the big stage persona, Emma Maye Gibson, becomes far less opaque. You could say that appearing on stage without her signature, humongous blonde matted wig and drag queen-like face paint (the latter to be added during the show via audience-interaction) is more exposing than the lewd-ity.
So much of art and entertainment alludes to sex and pleasure, and so much of that is packaged for the patriarchal gaze. In performing her own unfiltered pleasure, Betty reclaims her sexuality and her body for herself, and for all people who have had their bodies weaponised against them. This is an important development in the throughline of the show, in which she exhumes a personal journey with intimate partner violence and the hostile nature of the adversarial court system.
This story takes on a new significance in the aftermath of the avalanche of social media vitriol hurled at Amber Heard throughout the highly publicised defamation suit with Johnny Depp. “A woman scorned” was the sexist label her ex-partner’s highly paid defence attorney hurled at her in the court. She takes this label and chews it up, her contempt for the court channelled into art. Through a series of performative rituals, she reclaims pleasure and joy as a pathway to catharsis, and parallels the personal with the political.
There are flashes of elation, and elongated moments of endurance where she dares you to sit with discomfort. She dares you to stare her in the nethers, both bare naked before you and supersized and bannerised in artwork that echoes the “pussy prints” that have become a signature of her practice.
For those who’ve boarded the groove train before and who follow Betty’s work, there are nods to previous acts, familiar mantras that mesh with new ones. If you’re unacquainted with the Grumble, you might feel a little lost, but there’s still plenty to glean from it – if you’re open to it, that is. While this new staging adds some fun new bells and whistles, the intimacy of the first venue this show was performed at in 2020 was in some ways more conducive to the performance’s delicacies (and indelicacies). However, a surprise pyrotechnics moment afforded by the blacksmithing gear is very cool, and heightens the most punk rock number of the show, where Grumble sings a twisted take on the Pussycat Dolls’ ‘Don’t Cha’.
This show also serves as a time capsule to some of Gibson’s personal heroes and legends of erotic expression and queer art, these “goddesses” immortalised on banners. There’s Candy Royalle, a poet, performance artist, advocate and dear friend to Gibson who was lost to ovarian cancer in 2018. The tributes to Royalle and others are the most meaningful, their contributions to Sydney’s defiant underbelly are not lost.
You can tell that a village that has assembled to actualise this show, this experience. Betty’s longrunning lighting designer Alex Torney was in the booth, creating depth and dimension on the lightly dressed stage. Dance music pioneers Stereogamous teamed up with Betty on the immersive sound design. Local ethical clothing label Haus of Hellmutti produced Betty’s enviable costume, all chaps and straps and silver flames. Friend and collaborator Megana Holiday (aka moustachioed drag king Craig Slist) is part stage manager, part co-performer (wearing his own flash new Hellmutti getup for this iteration, a ‘chainsaw’ aesthetic to pair with Grumble’s ‘sword’). Produced lovingly by Thom Smyth and Performing Lines and presented in association with Eveleigh Works and 107 Projects, the list of collaborators goes on, see the zine-like program (collaged personally by Betty, naturally).
While Love and Anger seethed with rage and grief, Enemies of Grooviness leans more into the healing of personal and collective wounds, into hope, and into togetherness. There is still grief there, and it is raw, but it is softer. As well as calling out the shiteaters in this world and the systems that protect them, we must also acknowledge (and eat) our own shit too – as Betty very viscerally demonstrates in one act. Enemies of Grooviness may be confronting, but it rewards you for that passing discomfort, and for those willing to brave that challenge, it might just be the baptism of fire we need – aptly followed by a boogie in an industrial space.