By Bradley Storer
Skewering convention from the very outset, American cabaret maverick and performance artist extraordinaire Taylor Mac (who uses the pronoun ‘judy’) entered the stage to give a pre-emptive monologue about curtain speeches before introducing the assistant festival director Jonathon Holloway (in a magnificent rainbow peacock headdress) who delivered an opening address for the festival the show began.
Described as a taster and preparation for Mac’s full 24 Decade History of Popular Music, playing at the festival from next week, judy kicked off proceedings with the classic folk tune ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ rebooted into a barn-burning big-band number, the first of the stunning arrangements by musical director Matt Ray. The over-arching theme of Mac’s ‘radical faerie ritual sacrifice’ is of communities torn apart and at the same time bonded together by pain, and even in this truncated version the audience was required to be active participants. For a thrilling version of Tori Amos’ raging ‘Precious Things’, judy bought up a random audience member onstage to provide backing effects before reaching out to the entire audience to follow suit. The oldest and the youngest members of the audience danced onstage with Mac in a roof-shaking blues song, while two blond members were offered up as sacrifices to Nazi idealism in a campy carriage ride courtesy of Rogers and Hammerstein – it wasn’t entirely clear how this number was intended to ridicule Nazi ideology, but perhaps this would be clearly in the context of the full show. By the end of the evening the audience was so enthralled they were eagerly jumping to their feet to obey Mac’s instructions.
Mac is a masterful and intensely charismatic performer, able to make campy pratfalls sit easily alongside penetrating intellectual ruminations on sexual repression and political conservatism, and judy’s powerful and piercing voice is capable of encompassing rock, blues and jazz in equal measure. While there might be some who’d question the relevance to an Australian audience of an exploration of American political and social history through music, Mac made incredibly pertinent links from the lives of Jewish-American immigrants in the early 20th century to Australia’s current treatment of refugees. The re-fashioning of a homophobic Ted Nugent song explicitly about ‘fag-bashing’ into a soft, romantic slow dance under a disco ball (as well as the entire audience asked to dance with someone of the same gender) was a heavenly conclusion to the evening and made all the poignant by the current climate of homophobia being unleashed in this country.
With such an energetic, anarchic and transcendent opening we can expect a wonderful season for the Melbourne Festival this year, and can only wait in delighted anticipation for Mac’s show in its entirety next week!
Venue: Hamer Hall, St Kilda Rd.
Date: 6th October 2017