She cracks the intellectual whip, serves salty sass in her Guardian columns, and, it turns out, Van Badham writes a killer play, too.
Premiering in its fully-fledged form at the Opera House after a first iteration as STC’s Rough Draft #36, Banging Denmark is a gutsy and hilarious evisceration of pick-up culture, in which misogynist desperadoes hunt for poontang with ritualised sleights of slimy hand.
At the same time, using this hollow lifestyle as its foil, it entangles itself with questions of modern love, sex, romance … and marginal tax rates.
My hopes were high for this one, handled as it is by STC resident director Jessica Arthur, who has a reputation for bringing grace and gusto to her plays.
But because I can be a crummy feminist, and because the initial scene was a little heavy-handed in its caricature of the inglorious incel, a bubble of concern at first expanded within me.
Would this play be dogmatic? I pondered, ready to squirm. Would this be a forced feeding of moral stodge?
By scene two, and progressively through to the end, these faint niggles were squashed flat and forgotten. The entrance of the female characters is the spur in the side of this magnificent beast of a play, which canters off in a 90-minute ride, leaving one giddied with its cleverness, comedy and self-reflexive show tricks.
The star here is Amber McMahon, who plays Ishtar Madigan, a feminist blogger and gaming academic, with a special research interest in Mario Karts and binary-encoded breasts.
A wonderfully irrepressible character, we find Ish living in the photocopy room adjacent to her university office: unkempt, impoverished, yet utterly unbroken in spirit.
It was the “lunatic sex pest king” Guy de Witt who brought her to this state, we learn. For one measly, mocking tweet sending up his “fuck her anywhere” creed, de Witt systematically and unconcernedly destroyed her life. He sued her for defamation: she emptied her bank account to settle. He set his legion of followers on her: she became a hermit to escape the abuse.
Now, her only happiness is in the baby cucumbers her colleague and friend Denyse (Megan Wilding) brings her in secret. It’s not ideal.
An ethically loathsome but undeniably handsome financial saviour presents itself in the figure of Jake Newhouse (TJ Power).
An allegedly reformed apostle of de Witt, Newhouse has tracked Ish down to beg for her help. There’s this girl, this librarian called Anne, who is completely impervious to his moves: negging, kinoing, palm-reading … nothing works.
He wants Ish’s advice. And he’ll pay $50k for it.
Can we blame Ish when she doesn’t give a definitive no?
But who knew that this hot librarian (Michelle Lim Davidson) was Danish? What pick-up artistry could possibly work on a woman nurtured in the most gender-progressive nation on earth? Danish broads: they just can’t be gamed.
Besides, Ish’s seduction solutions are … niche. Geek niche. Her hermit existence has not benefited her sexually or socially.
Meanwhile, Denyse tries to work out her own desires. Does she really want Toby (Patrick Jhanur), her mooning lover? Her long-deferred hunger will put her most valuable relationships to the test, while challenging what female sexual empowerment and autonomy can look like.
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Wilding and McMahon are wonderfully paired, each a comedic master in their own right. So, too, is Davidson, the chill, white-gloved and certainly unhinged librarian, who develops an obsession of her own. A bizarre love triangle ensues, featuring a wonderful scene of two very tipsy women.
Banging Denmark’s dialogue ricochets about, spinning and whizzing through arguments and ripostes and the special mania of the well-read. Does it ever get too clever for its clogs? Perhaps. And perhaps too, the play’s dramatic irony could’ve been swapped out for a dramatic twist that the audience could enjoy.
On the technical side, the universe the talent inhabits is a well-crafted one. Renée Mulder’s set is thematically striking, with a back wall made up of stacks upon stacks of speakers – a grand metaphor of how the Internet’s recursively amplified voices can very easily become the structures that shape and imprison us.
These stacks also double as nifty panels and doors – one through which the elusive idol, our librarian Anne, glides in and out with her book trolley as a frosty phantasm of desire. Props (like a plastic ‘claw’ in de Witt’s apartment, a photocopier, and wilted tighty-whities) are used inventively. Nice touches abound.
Sound design (Clemence Williams) is replete with playful flourishes, worked into de Witt’s Santa is Coming live podcast, or in the shrill off-stage screech of a neighbour. Lighting designer Veronique Bennett unleashes her creativity in the play’s steamier scenes.
As the lights went down and the audience let out a final guffaw, I mourned that the female characters – but Ish especially – existed only in this play; that the entirety of their constructed lives began and ended before me.
Usually, I experience this feeling only at the end of a good, long book, after spending many hours with a charismatic protagonist.
Banging Denmark plays until August 24. It is one to see – and possibly see again.
This content is financially supported by City of Sydney