Sydney, 1985. A P&O liner has just docked at Circular Quay.
The entire cast of the ship’s variety show has been sacked for wearing flesh-coloured stockings, but being young, fit and well-connected, they’ve managed to swim across Camp Cove to the Opera House, sneak through Stage Door and get into the Studio to continue their tawdry, mawkish routine.
Homosexuality has been decriminalised for only a year, so the usual heterosexual pantomimes are main fare, but the real frissons come when the men get into heels and slide up against one another. The women, all long hair and sequins, are mere foils. There’s one heavily tattooed guy – predictably the aerialist.
There are more costume changes than you can poke a stick at, but they soon become a blur of diaphanous polyester. Plenty of good music too — Chris Isaak, Prince, Beyoncé — but really bad versions, probably to save on licensing fees.
Seriously, I hate panning things, but what is this show doing at the Opera House?
It would look better in the Casino, preferably through the glaze of a drunken spree. In the glossy program, full of typos, we’re told it is about, ‘a great love … a celebration of love, acceptance, friendship and the bonds that tie us together.’
What does that even mean? Everything and nothing? Or, the journey of director Bass Fam (who calls himself Bass Fam Creative as though he is a company not a person), from heteronormativity to gayness. But those things are not mutually exclusive, especially in this case.
I am not in the slightest bit cynical about such passage. To the contrary. This story has been told so many times, for decades now, especially here: its manifold characters stream up Oxford Street every year for the entire nation – in fact world – to see. So then?!
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Tro Griffiths, the aforementioned aerialist, and Zoë Marshall are the stars. Griffiths’ dexterity and strength both on the floor and the pole are highlights. Marshall does an expert mouth balancing routine, as well as hanging by her hair. I wanted more of this.
Otherwise, claims of this being circus and burlesque are bogus.
Most of the overlong two hours were taken up with average dancing. The dancers were made to act which was a big mistake. The main burlesque elements were the superbly turned out clutch of platinum blondes in the audience who leapt to their feet at the end, friends no doubt of the performers trying to start a standing ovation. But the audience didn’t fall for the hype.
Not afterwards anyway, but unfortunately they did before. Matador sold out, as in its birthplace Melbourne. Indeed, this review will not touch the sides of the massive cash-in on the 21st century revival of burlesque, circus and cabaret that Australia has played such a central part in.
It breaks my heart that the wrong people are being rewarded.
Here’s an example of how the cast pitch themselves in the program: ‘Miranda is a light hearted and driven performer with a strong dance background being a dance teacher for most of her adult life (sic), choreographing routines and performing in both National and International dance competitions.’ Honey that will get you gigs all the way up the Gold Coast.
I get that people have to make a buck; it’s an artist’s prerogative to shake hands with the devil. But sometimes the gap between commercial and artistic is way wider than Camp Cove: it’s more like the Pacific Ocean.
The real eggs in this giant pan are the programmers at the Opera House asleep at Stage Door when Bass Fam Creative came knocking, forgetting circus and burlesque are artforms requiring years of training, let alone talent, just like the classical and highbrow forms elsewhere in the building. Perhaps they were in bed with the curators of this year’s Sydney Festival who took up precious space in the Spiegeltent with similar dross in the form of Pigalle.
Sydney’s a small town, and any critic has to think twice when being negative. But it’s not that small – it’s bigger than Berlin and San Francisco. And it is a hard town. It is so damn hard for the genuinely gifted burlesque and circus practitioners to get a decent gig, that when a show like Matador makes it into our most venerable cultural institution, it simply is not right or fair.
I was forcefully (and nauseatingly) reminded of the horserace projections on the sails last year: we are governed by a corporate elite who prefer superficial glitz to art with skill and depth. Save Our House.
This review is dedicated to all the great performing artists in Sydney who’ve never managed to get on stage at the Sydney Opera House. It ain’t your fault. Keep at it: we see you, and appreciate you.