Artists review the critics in this biting and sometimes hilarious piece of meta-theatre by three subversive performers
Barry Award-winning comedian and theatre-maker Zoë Coombs Marr (Dave; Trigger Warning) has teamed up with British alt-cabaret performer Ursula Martinez (Hanky Panky, Free Admission) and American performer Adrienne Truscott (Asking For It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy And Little Else!) to make this new work about the relationship between artists and critics – specifically: these artists, and their critics.
For a moment, try to imagine that you’re on the cusp of presenting a piece of theatre that you spent months developing. You’ve deliberated over even the most minor aspects of the work, until you’re satisfied that your piece is complex and challenging. Then, imagine that a reviewer pans your performance, decrying it as confusing and messy. But here’s the part that really burns: the critic writes that many elements of your piece occurred for “no apparent reason”. No. Apparent. Reason.
With a single sentence, critics wield the power to trivialise and de-legitimise artists’ work (and if they’re so inclined, the artists themselves). It is this power (and the institutions in which critics and artists exist) that three artists – Adrienne Truscott, Ursula Martinez and Zoë Coombs Marr – seek to lay bare and explore in Wild Bore.
I mean ‘lay bare’ very, very literally. The show begins with three naked bums, perched over trestle tables. Talking out of their arses, the trio begin to deliver some truly hair-raising quotes from real reviews, melded with a scripted ‘review’ of the show the audience is currently watching. Found and scripted text blurs to the point that we’re not sure whether descriptions of audience members as “survivors of the Titanic” are real or not (although they do go to pains to say that “walking like an anchovy and looking like an unmade bunk bed” is a direct quote).
Eventually, each woman stands up to directly address the audience, revealing some of the most negative feedback they’ve ever received. Through these reviews, one common theme emerges: all three of them have had their artistic choices dismissed as happening for “no apparent reason” – which is in essence, a rejection of an artist’s agency. One reviewer questioned whether a cleaning up scene in a show co-created by Coombs Marr, which was choreographed and set to music, was by “dramaturgical design”. “Is that up for debate?”, she wonders aloud.
All artists have complex relationships with critics, and particularly boundary-pushing, genre-blurring performance artists like Truscott (who hails from America), Martinez (Britain) and Coombs Marr (Sydney). Their work lives in the grey areas of genre; Truscott’s hilarious Asking for it! saw her unpacking rape culture while naked from the waist down, Martinez’s My Stories, Your Emails was a response to an anti-striptease piece in which she read out outrageous emails she’d received, and Coombs Marr’s drag character ‘Dave’ is a terrifyingly accurate parody of sexist comedians.
Another thing the three artists have in common is that their work plays with the idea of subverting power – which makes them the perfect assassins for this particular job. With their over-the-top meta-review as the through-line for the first two acts of the play, the trio emulate the worst kind of self-interested, conservative critics (at times, through stomach-turning parodies involving naked bums feasting, smoking and even shitting while spurting ever-more bombastic criticism of the show). “Give us back our watchable, engaging theatre!” cries Truscott, begging for this piece of “pretentious anti-theatre” to be mercifully cut short.
To say that this is all knee-slappingly hilarious isn’t quite true. Sequences of grating talking-bum repetition are interrupted by moments of purposeful obscurity (is this what it means to be ‘wild bores’?). Yes, at times I did feel confused and bored – but this feels like the point. By forcing the audience to re-calibrate their understanding of what is going on, the artists are taking away the ability to let audiences (and critics) come to a single interpretation of what everything means. And (as far as this reviewer is concerned), this feels like one of their key messages: not that critics don’t have a place in the relationship between artist and audience, but that critics who refuse to open themselves up to work they find challenging should show enough respect to give artists the benefit of the doubt that their choices are intentional.
But there is another, larger target in their sights too: white, heterosexual male conservatism. At one point, Coombs-Marr muses about forcing herself into male structures with a plastic dick on her nose. In another, the trio enact rapid-fire parodies of classic performance traditions in the most irreverent anti-tribute to the theatrical canon since Coombs Marr/Post’s Oedipus Schmoedipus. Then there’s a surprise appearance of a fourth performer (the fantastic Krishna Istha) which artfully creates cracks in the whole premise of the show – but that’s where the spoilers will end.
As with the individual work of Truscott, Martinez and Coombs Marr, Wild Bore refuses to adhere to one genre or definition. Beneath obscurity and playfulness is a real undercurrent of anger, which the trio use to reclaim power, create empathy and call for change. Whether Wild Bore’s time begins and ends at this Malthouse Theatre season remains to be seen, but in my opinion, this important and subversive work demands a wider audience.