The mission statement of RIOT, the Irish variety-circus-cabaret spectacle currently in residence at Sydney Festival’s Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent, is announced at the very top of the show by spoken word artist Emmet Kirwan: “The artist is dissident.”
He promises that what follows is a night of dissident acts, of joyful, subversive anti-capitalist response to Irish inequity (that, with its oppressive reproductive rights, class imbalance, and xenophobia is not too different from our own).
With Kirwan and drag queen Panti Bliss as our guides into the variety show (they describe themselves as the heart and the leader, respectively, of the revolution), the framework of RIOT is disarmingly earnest, urging us to consider kindness as an imperative revolutionary act; encouraging us to become whatever we dream of being, even if it’s Farrah Fawcett; and demands that we all begin speaking truth to power.
These themes are realised in a few of the acts: the Irish religious state is cut down with a Whipping Jesus sketch (it shouldn’t be spoiled but pool noodles are involved); Irish dancing is repurposed into something a little more sexy and modern by Philip Connaughton and Deirdre Griffin, and Kirwan turns spoken word and poetry traditions into a call to arms for equality, especially for women.
In one piece, he tells a story about women’s rights and demands that women be heard, and while this performance is coming from a white man who assures us he acknowledges his privilege and entitlement as a white man, you can’t help but wish this moment was given to a woman.
Or really, that any minute was given to a woman. The women in the company are largely used as backup and props, singing while men dance or perform stunts; the sole act led by a woman, in which Megan Riordan sings Gossip’s Standing in the Way of Control, is orchestrated to be disrupted and turned into a collective moment with the audience. Even she must give her space to the group rather than claiming it as an individual.
Why can’t a woman speak? The closest we get is Panti Bliss, who performs a lip sync mash-up of recorded soundbites around female rage, empowerment, and struggle, everything from Tyra Banks’ ‘We were all rooting for you!’ to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. With this, and the distinct whiteness of the ensemble, it seems the revolution has its favoured soldiers.
This aside, how much you’ll enjoy the show depends on your individual tolerance level for novelty 80s-themed dance (by Britain’s Got Talent winners Lords of Strut), easy banter aimed at the gay and gay-friendly, strip-teases, aerial acts and spoken word; it feels like a grab-bag without much consideration of overall tone and energy build.
You may end up craving more political content – or a little less, depending on the night out you’re looking for.
Either way, this is a RIOT that may benefit from a grain of salt.