I’ve never had difficulty finding audience members to interview. Most of the time, people are so brimming with words that they start spilling out before I even press record. Mark Wilson’s Unsex Me was actually the first time I’ve had to ask multiple people before finding willing participants. I think this says something about the play: there is so much going on but people really want some time to digest it. Driving home afterwards, my friend said that he had reached a point of exhaustion during the play, an exhaustion that came from investing so much in the performer and seeing him so vulnerable. I wonder if that had something to do with the reluctance of the audience to speak: we were all left feeling vicariously vulnerable by Mark’s exquisite performance. We had been through something as a group and the generosity and honesty of the performer meant that we weren’t ready to dive straight into it.
Or maybe it is simpler than that. Maybe it comes from the fear of a largely straight audience that they will stuff up a dialogue about queer theatre. In this age when linguistic and cultural changes are accelerating faster than ever before, this fear can prevent a dialogue from ever getting off the ground. Or maybe I was just having an awkward night and didn’t sell it well.
Whatever the reason, I’m delighted that I found James and Cavelle who were willing to have a chat. As we were talking, James’ parents came and joined us, silently at first, but eventually we dragged them into the conversation and I couldn’t have been happier: the first intergenerational SFB conversation. So this is Unsex Me, the audience dialogue or ‘What happens when you bring your parents to MKA.’ Enjoy. And be sure to get along to MKA’s HYPRTXT Festival. There is amazing work to be seen.
Fleur: What just happened in there?
James: Well, the performer, Mark Wilson, was playing the character of ‘Mark Wilson’, a famous actress returning to the Australian stage after winning an academy award. Or at least, that’s how it begun. After this initial interview, it descended into a non-linear, non-narrative dance-cross… um… What would you call it?
Fleur: Dance cross porno cross essay cross –
James: Yeah. Definitely. I should come out and say that this was my fourth time seeing the show.
Fleur: That’s great. Was it your first time?
Cavelle: Yes, it was.
Fleur: Did you know anything about it going in?
Cavelle: Well James told me it was great and that I should see it and that I would like it and that it was about Lady Macbeth and the loss of a child. That’s it. I really want to see it again. I think I would get more out of it. It is a very complex thing. I think he is very brave.
Fleur: He’s an amazing man.
James: This time I read much more about gender. I think that’s the thing that’s hardest to read or to know exactly what he’s trying to tease out. I really connected much more to the idea of infertility. Somehow the character of the father is this embodiment of this endless patriarchal question and provocation of queerness, queer-culture and homosexuality. That it is hopeless somehow. I think it was really using Lady Macbeth to riff on that intense kind of despair. Other times I thought it was more specifically about Lady Macbeth and childlessness and loss. Obviously there’s something in there about suicide as well. It feels like, when we get to that point in the play, we’ve reached the reason that we’re all here. Maybe everything else is connected to that. It feels like that is the catalyst.
Fleur: I turned to Steve at the end and said “I think I almost get it this time but, if I don’t hold onto these thoughts really tight, they will slip away into a blur of colour and music and –
Cavelle: And hotpants.
Fleur: And hotpants.” It is like he is defying us to try and find a meaning.
James: I realised tonight that every time we approach a conclusion he forces us to throw it away with a comment like “not all gay people like anal sex so this means nothing anyway.” We may have been spending the last ten minutes analysing and dissecting but actually, fuck it.
Fleur: Absolutely. Something I got from it this time (and I haven’t seen it in a long, long while so I don’t know how much I got of this on first viewing)… To James’ parents hovering nearby: I feel really bad! Please! Have a seat or come and talk!
Maura: No, no, no! It is really interesting!
Fleur: Oh good! Well something I got from it this time is this sense of performativity: performativity of gender, performativity of suicide, performativity of celebrity culture. And then there are these beautiful, eternal themes in Shakespeare that surpass all of that. For a moment. For a moment we transcend it and then at the end it goes “oh let’s just fuck.” It undercuts that once more. Goes “everything is bigger than that. Oh no, actually everything is simpler than you will ever possibly…”
James: Yeah. I didn’t get the performativity stuff but I certainly saw a lot of Freud, maybe it’s because I’ve been studying it recently –
Fleur: Ha! Yes I got that as the performativity of psychology! The performativity of the father-figure in Freudian analysis. I think it is one of those things that you can warp to your way of thinking every time.
What was your first thought when you came out?
Cavelle: Oh I don’t – I don’t know! I think it is more of a feeling than a thought.
Fleur: What do you think that feeling was? Can you put a finger on it?
Cavelle: I don’t know. That’s why I said I have to see it again. As someone who is not educated in the world of theatre, I’m just trying to absorb it and listen to what other people think.
Fleur: That’s fine! But don’t dismiss your own experience of it all.
James: I think he makes it incredibly difficult to digest but, at the same time, impossible to forget. It feels like that’s what the performance is for. He could have just delivered a lecture on the themes within Macbeth and I know Mark and I know that he would do that very well. He is a highly academic person and a deep thinker but he’s really using the performance to push these things together visually and sonically in ways that we can’t forget.
Fleur: Cavelle, you probably won’t get a chance to see it again as it closes on Sunday. How will you describe this to people that maybe aren’t in theatre? What will you say happened to you and for you on this Saturday night?
Cavelle: That’s a good question. I guess… I don’t know. I don’t think it can be really summed up. I guess I’d just try and describe it. But I don’t know how I’d describe it. I don’t know, I’d just…
James: Would you recommend it?
James: I brought my parents.
Fleur: They are standing about two meters away. Very patiently.
James: They are being very patient.
Michael: And confused.
James: They say they are totally confused and this might be seen as me kind of trying to further them because I think seeing this kind of work is good for them.
Fleur: Do you want to add anything to that? Parents?
Maura: There were bits that reminded me of sitting through Barry Humphries performances. The drawing people up out of the audience and that kind of thing? Everyone else in the audience was enjoying the embarrassment of the guy who had been dragged out to play the husband and he was kind of ridiculed and sent back. It is the same thing: Barry Humphries often plays as a man dressed as a woman and yet, what I thought was really interesting, is that you can never forget that Barry Humphries is a man. There is something about his performance. Maybe it is because he is a whole generation older than Mark, but I really felt that when Mark was talking about Lady Macbeth and the childlessness, that there was so much more empathy. I felt it was a much more empathic kind of performance. It was this kind of shared understanding. Again, you say it is about gender whereas with Barry Humphries it is about social satire and using the kind of women that he had grown up with. His mother’s friends and people like that.
Fleur: Laughing at women rather than –
Maura: Yes, at that kind of aspirational middleclass! Whereas here it was much more “I’m a man but here is my understanding of what a woman would feel like being childless.” And it is a shared experience. I thought there was something really lovely about that. Like “I’m a man and I don’t have to be a woman to feel like that.”
Fleur: That grief.
Maura: There were bits of the same camp humour and stuff. But that just shows my limitations and what I’ve seen, that Barry Humphries is the first person that I think about.
Fleur: But you took that image and then went further with it; saw how it had grown.
Maura: I think also you could see his respect and interest and love for Shakespeare in there. And yes, there is the horrible pop culture references and how you can dumb everything down and strip it of all that meaning; all of those really important themes about loss and grief and relationships. And, and, and… Yeah. I loved it.
Fleur: And dad? Anything you want to add?
Michael: Very little that would make sense. It was interesting. I’m a simple fellow. I just loved how he parodied the woman. Ah… his performance there… I was a little confronted by the microphone. I failed to see the value in that but I’ve seen it now so that’s life experience. Thank you for bringing me, James.
James: No worries.
Michael: At the end, apart from admiring his great voice for its own sake, there was a lot in what was said there (all of which I’ve forgotten now) but which we’ll try and make some sense of as we have dinner.
Maura: I do think it is the kind of performance that you remember. Some things that are amusing are so throw-away and it wasn’t. That’s what I liked about it. There was so much thought that went into it. I know I’ll be coming back for weeks and thinking “Oh, then there was that bit and that bit!” It was really rich, I think.
Fleur: Yes. And a very generous offer.
Maura: Yeah. He was just standing (well, practically naked) but just completely bare and saying “here. I’m an actor. I’ve given you everything.” He just seemed so naked and alone on the stage. It was a fantastic ending.
James: I’m now thinking about your earlier thing about performativity. With all the Lady Macbeth and the celebrity culture and all these things, it was about the loneliness beyond our artifice and how that loneliness somehow stems from a trauma that we have gained just by being us. It is within the essence of our gender or our sexuality or our childlessness.
Fleur: Thank you so much all of you. And I know it is such a big ask. The first time I came out of it I didn’t really have any words and if someone had put a microphone in front of my face, I probably would have punched them. So thank you so much.