The Clown from Snowy River – Premier season, May 2006, The Judith Wright Centre for Contemporary Arts, Fortitude Valley. Review by Douglas Leonard, Realtime, June/July Edition 2006.
We who get slapped
Clowns are a dubious bunch at best. They can be frighteningly atavistic and their naked need for love and attention can be as inopportune as that stranger at last night’s party. Yet clowns are seemingly for our times. All manner of motley, zanies and bobos are contributing to a Brisbane charivari. But if red noses are becoming ubiquitous, the masqueraders are hearteningly heterodox.
The Clown from Snowy River celebrates the 8th birthday of deBASE Productions working in Queensland and was devised in consultation with Kooemba Jdarra Indigenous Performing Arts Company. deBASE has created a following for its madcap clown shows, comedy sketches and political satire, and this work is a well considered amalgamation of all these. Aimed primarily at young audiences, the show also underlined the clown’s natural propensity for anarchy and disruption as a welcome social tonic.
The publicity poster already hinted at subversion. An Aboriginal clown (Daz) wearing a red nose and replete with cork-dangling bushie hat conveyed a cheeky miscegenation of cultural icons. The metaphysics of black face/white face evoked Genet’s The Blacks but with an intentionally disarming Australian gaucherie. As Daz declares in the show: “Nobody waltzes Matilda like me”.
The work is a new departure for deBASE in that, according to the program notes, “it aims not only to make people laugh but to make people think”, particularly in regard to notions of national identity. This is timely. Historian Henry Reynolds differentiates a decade of reconciliation leading to the historic Mabo decision from the amnesiac drift of the Howard government after their election in 1996 when Land Rights and the Stolen Generation were dropped from the agenda. This is the sorry substance of the ‘history wars’ triggered by Keith Windshuttle’s revisionism.
A larrikin nod to World War 1 made clear that deBASE is acutely aware their clown-eye view is that of ordinary soldiers head down in the trenches. At the beginning of their show within the show, controversial reenactments of the Children Overboard or Corby affairs are rejected. The radical bent of their project lies in the clown’s innocence. The extraordinary achievement of The Clown from Snowy River is that Aboriginality is naturalised so seamlessly that the clown’s world in itself is sufficient critique of mediated history. The smug Strine expert falters into silence when called upon to translate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island lingo by Indigenous clowns Daz (Mark Sheppard) and Sprinta (Nadine McDonald-Dowd). There were the old standards, and some new standard-bearers deflated by the clowns into pocket-size vignettes of Australian history: The Dreamtime, Captain Cook’s arrival, Burke and Wills, Ned Kelly, Anzacs, the Sydney Olympics, Cathy Freeman, Kylie Minogue, Shane Warne. The action is played out in and around the clowns’ shared house (a sly dig at Big Brother by designer Clare McFadden). deBASE espouses a loose pantomime form, but the individual clown personae were so sure footed and idiosyncratically Australian that it worked as if it were inspired improvisation. Their sweaty vigor and democratic relationship with the audience was a reminder of early Circus Oz.
Amongst a multi-talented cast the physical colossus Footsy (Allen Laverty) as gymnastic footballer cum ballet dancer was noteworthy for his provocative forays into the audience. Swagman is differentiated in this world sans red nose. This mythical democrat is entertainingly deconstructed by Jonathan Brand in all his humourless authoritarian guises. He wants to tell his story—and play all the parts! He can’t say s-s-sorry.
Male dominated history limited the scope for independent female clown performances until in a moment of exhilarating girl gang jouissance they hold their own and remind the men that ‘women are mates too!’. Netball girl Spaz (Laurel Collins), dizzy blonde Shaz (Liz Skitch) and murri guide Sprinta (Nadine McDonald-Dowd) were versatile and dexterous in slipping in and out of myriad roles. A consummate piece of ensemble playing was achieved during the re-creation of Cathy Freeman’s lighting of the Olympic flame in slo-mo.
St Chrysostom formulated the definition of a clown as “he who gets slapped.” When Swagman and Footsy as white settlers set out to clear the land, Daz, while embodying a kangaroo, is ‘he who gets shot’—an action replicated under different circumstances as a running gag. In the previous scene, Daz stands in for both Captain Cook and an abashed Aboriginal child. This highly successful Brechtian gambit establishes Daz as consummate player of shifting status rather than sacrificial victim. Mark Sheppard delivered an impressive performance to suit. Daz first arrives on stage in farcical drag costume as if he were Dionysius at the gates of Thebes/Kylie at the Emmy’s. But Swagman as the self-appointed ringmaster repeatedly refuses Daz a chance to do his act only to be defeated in the end by mass strike action by the other clowns. If the most successful clown is ‘he who is none the worse for his slapping’, Daz earns his final acclamation. But even so he remains equivocal, darting quizzical smiles at the audience while being lauded/loaded with ridiculous consumer goods as the glittering prizes, perhaps, for having survived. In bittersweet clown fashion, Dionysus (and Kylie) are reborn again and again without dying.
deBASE has mounted a tour de force within modest and intelligent limits. If Australia wants to send people overseas in the future, please send in the clowns.