Review by Thomas Gregory
In marketing material, this night describes itself as a “provocative performance” that tempts us to the “reexamination of our close personal histories” as it takes an “occasionally filthy and deeply passionate look at the true history of sensuality ‘down under’”.
It is marketing that is completely honest while also somewhat misleading. This confronting piece unapologetically makes us come to terms with the role sex played in the colonisation of this country, how controlled narratives and histories unspoken prevent us from properly celebrating the importance of sexual freedom.
As doors open to the main hall of Northcote Town Hall, audience members avoid the large circle in the middle of the room. Understanding the conventions of theatre, they accept this area as a “sacred space”, for the performer, not the one being performed to.
Instead, we stand around it, quietly. Even before any formal start to the night, the four performers have come out in bright metallic jumpsuits and are chatting with us, asking if we are excited for the night. Before we realise, they are starting to dance within the circle, around the single prop of a large, round, bed. They invite us to join them, to cross that threshold onto the stage. The combination of physical charisma and pure curiosity leaves few passing up on the offer.
Within ten minutes, that music is pumping, a disco ball is scattering light around the room, and it is filled with such positive energy that we are all putty in the hands of the creators of this magnificent performance piece.
It is a responsibility not taken lightly. Several “stripteases” are performed for “lucky” audience members, as the party takes a slightly more sexual turn. A larger-than-life plaster unicorn is brought out and led around the stage, performers blowing bubbles out of toy guns around the room.
Then, almost without us realising, the audience finds themselves almost entirely down one end of the room. We have moved to ensure we see two of the performers. They are in the back of the room, now solemnly donning what appear to be black robes. They turn out to be servants’ dresses you would see in the pictures of colonial Australia. The sort you would see worn by slaves. We realise the music has all but disappeared. The disco ball no longer reflects the lights. The bright satin bed is covered with a virginal-white sheet, and we come to the reason of the night.
Joel Bray, the creator and lead performer of “Considerable Sexual License”, is a proud Wiradjuri man whose family has been a part of what is now known as central NSW for millennia. By telling the story of his family, and his people, through blunt physical imagery and dark, empathetic humour, he leaves himself vulnerable in the hope to change our perspectives. By the end of the night, his sweat and tears stain the dancefloor, which he invites us to share once again. It is communal mourning because this very personal story of grief is sadly one of many.
Besides one long and powerful monologue, the night is one without a formal script to speak of. The four performers are all quite talented dancers, but also simply quite charismatic and welcoming people. Carly Sheppard, in particular, shows a powerful ability to draw an audience into a character without words.
Special mention should also be made to the incredible people behind the scenes in this show. The musical score that runs behind this performance is at times quite subtly brilliant and few audience members would even have noted the sound effects sometimes added. The lighting is dynamic without ever being intrusive, and scenes transition so smoothly that even an experienced audience member would struggle to find the seams.
If there were to be any criticism of the night, it would be in the final scene, a form of ceremony most reflective of what a “man on the street” would think about if asked to define the dance history of these lands. While heart-breaking, and cleverly referencing the more flamboyantly positive start to the night, it also runs longer than expected. Is it right to allow so much time to pass from the most powerful image of the night before giving the audience permission to breathe once more?
It is difficult to not leave the performance with a sense of love-filled, hurting anger. At the history of our nation, and the role we currently play in both its remembrance and its progression to the future. This anger is justified if difficult to resolve.
Whereas other artists who share Bray’s story would take their anger and turn it on their audience, he invited us to share in his story, partake, and empathise. Will this production of a communal recognition of our past and current pains lead to a better future?
We can only hope.
“Considerable Sexual License” is part of the Yirramboi festival and runs until Sat 15 May. It contains full-frontal nudity, coarse language, and references to sexual violence. Some strobe lighting effects occur.
Image Credit: Bryony Jackson