Review by Naomi Cardwell.
With Kikki Temple’s spectacular entrance onstage, Burgerz kicks off like a raucous celebration. The audience is immediately up and on their feet, clapping and woo-ing. Feel-good music thumps away as snappy and slick lighting by Katie Sfetkidis bathes the space in pulsating rainbows. There are platform crocs, a smoke machine, and lots of dancing. In the middle of it all, Temple chews the scenery in an iconic costume by Bethany J Fellows, drawing cheers from the crowd with a bottom-wiggle here and a sassy hair-flick there. We’re all united, dancing in rainbows to round out Midsumma Festival 2023.
Or so we think.
The performance emerges from a single moment, still frozen in time. In 2016 at a crowded train station, a takeaway burger flies through the air in slow motion toward Temple, thrown by a hateful white man shouting a transphobic slur. The gazes of nearly a hundred passers-by slide away, ignoring the humiliated trans woman of colour as she’s pelted with sticky ingredients and mayonnaise. Written by acclaimed British performance artist Travis Alabanza, Burgerz takes back agency from trauma by deconstructing, analysing, cooking, and re-assembling the projectile snack with the assistance of a white male selected from the audience.
In Temple’s hands, the incredibly risky variable of sustained audience participation produces a tough group therapy session and a sparkling live cooking show all in one: thank goodness the fridge is stocked with beer.
Temple leverages the whiplash from the play’s two moods expertly. In counterpoint to all the music and colours she enumerates blow after jarring blow of exhausting daily encounters with hateful strangers. We come to understand the burger incident as a crescendo to the relentless threats and violence Temple endures as she simply tries to go about her business - and an escalation into physical assault where still nobody comes to her aid.
It’s a wake-up to see the chilling Bystander Effect - so named following the failure in 1964 of nearly forty witnesses to intervene in the public murder of New York woman Kitty Genovese - amplified into present day and broad daylight. The burger, Temple explains, could have been a fist. A knife. Alabanza’s clever script is a meditation on their own real assault before an audience of assembled bystanders whose applause as Temple twerks on stage is held in damning relief against their silence – our complicity – in a public space which should be safe.
Director Kitan Petkovski’s visual tableaus are iconic, from Temple’s startling arrival to the moment golden light filters through the rising vapours from the sizzling meat, warping the performer’s face as it contorts in rage and fear. Temple’s quick-witted timing and keen discernment are magnificent, as she casually leans on the counter while her white male helper from the audience chops vegetables, and asks him when he last cried.
Rachel Lewindon’s sound design ratchets up the nearly excruciating pressure on Temple’s relationship with their audience from blasting feel-good pop to a droning, morphing, lonely note. The compounding weight of the material, however, becomes difficult to sustain – leading to a few overwrought moments with no way out but to resort again to dancing, rainbows and sass.
As the first international staging of the piece, Burgerz is localised to Melbourne with the insertion of Flinders Street Station and a brief and brilliant insight into Temple’s own Maori culture and the intersection of racism and transphobia she experiences.
Still more customisations would serve the script well. Temple is a gifted storyteller whose own experiences should take priority within the structural form of Alabanza’s original work - and most of us assembled at the St. Kilda theatre on a Friday night can attest that there are plenty of stories of hate and apathy to go around in Melbourne.
As the 2023 Midsumma Festival draws to a close, Burgerz’ brand of sweet and sour is the perfect last meal. Hilarious and convicting all at once, it represents the sincerity and ambition – and all their associated risks - we’ve come to love from Theatre Works. Be brave. See this play.