There are three kinds of plague: bubonic, pneumonic and comic. The latter, obscure but no less lethal than the other two, descends each year with the mephitic vapours of autumn, just in time to infect crowds at the Comedy Festival, ensuring maximum carnage. For years we’ve been warned the world is one gene-switch away from a global pandemic, and this year’s strain – Yersinia comedifestivalensis – seems to have mutated into some kind of Vancomycin-resistant superbug.
If you think this is going to be a whimsical whinge from a sick critic, wherein I describe chain-sucking Anticols through interminable stand-up and theatre of dubious merit, you’re right. It so is. But it’s also a chance to reflect on the ironies of bodily betrayal in the theatre – an artform that’s, after all, written in the language of the body; that demands physical presence, often in closer proximity to complete strangers than any sane person would otherwise dare.
My own lurgy worsened from mild head cold to galloping bronchitis at the opening night of Opera Australia’s La Boheme. Mimi eat your heart out. Physical discomfort didn’t detract from the pleasures of the best Boheme since Baz Luhrmann invoked the ghost of Jimmy Dean in the early 90s.
Relocating the action to the Weimar republic, Gale Edwards’ ravishing spectacle reached decadent heights in the Papignol scene: a riotous spiegeltent, where bare-breasted prostitutes and cabaret stars brush shoulders with clamorous urchins and the odd Nazi. But it was Christian Badea’s tornadic conducting, and the voices and chemistry of the romantic leads – Ji-Min Park and Takasha Meshé Kizart – that drew out the full dramatic power of Puccini’s music.
I briefly envied Mimi her ability to wheeze out an aria with a terminal lung haemorrhage, before being whisked back into the annual danse macabre of Comedy Festival reviewing.
Comedians and critics have an awkward relationship. Hardly a year goes by without controversy. This year it was some sexist reviewer at the Herald-Sun opining that women can’t be funny.
There’s no better proof to the contrary than Geraldine Quinn, winner of the Golden Gibbo for her rock-cabaret You’re The Voice. Predictably enough, it was a voice poor Quinn had lost by festival’s end. She had to cancel her last show, and was apparently reduced to communicating by iPhone at the awards ceremony.
Stewing in your own mucus tends to make you hyper-conscious of bodies in the theatre. Audience participation is a nightmare at the best of times, without, say, trying to avoid snotting on toddlers at an interactive kids’ show.
Bodily misadventure can strike anytime, though, and it’s especially funny when it happens to critics. Take my colleague John Bailey, who recently copped a piece of flying cutlery in the ’nads at a Dance Massive event titled – ahem – The Weight Of The Thing Left Its Mark.
It reminds me of the time I got sconed in the face with a mandarin at a performance of Black Lung’s Rubeville. The punk theatre outfit always claimed it was an accident. That would have been easier to believe if I hadn’t been the only person in the audience. Apparently the thrower, Thomas M. Wright, was aiming for another actor. Not, I might add, without cause.
Still, the whirligig of time brings in his revenges. Wright is currently starring as a bad-boy rock-poet in Simon Stone’s Baal. Theatre that makes you reflect on the vulnerability of the human body, it contains extensive nudity. Plus half the show is performed in driving stage rain. Wright informed me on opening night, with a look of glazed wonder, that the water’s unheated, and will stay that way for over 60 performances. Pneumonia seems inevitable.
Nor does the audience remain unmoved. In one story doing foyer rounds, a patron at Baal had her wig blown off by a particularly gusty scene change. Perhaps they should add “coup de theatre” to the show’s already substantial list of warnings.
And in the theatre next door, the set of Vanessa Bates’ astringent comedy Porn.Cake presented a different physical challenge. The woman sitting next to me seemed taken with the spectacle of 54 cakes onstage. Her peals of intestinal thunder were so loud they drowned out some of the early dialogue. It’s a tasty new play – just make sure you eat before you go.
Theatre is never separate from the great stage of life, of course, and offstage dramas are integral to the theatrical experience. It’s fitting that perhaps the greatest comic incongruity in theatre history belongs to one of its greatest practitioners. Moliere, recently performed with élan by Melbourne French Theatre, died on the job. The comedian succumbed to tuberculosis shortly after starring in his last play. You guessed it. It was called The Hypochondriac.
[An edited version of this article was published in The Age.]