The Mardi Gras Festival has to be one of my very favourite things about Sydney. It’s as sparkly, diverse, unexpected as anyone could please, and whether you walk away entertained or heartbroken – you’ll have seen something the Sydney scene rarely offers. There’s also more than a good chance it will change your views on something.
Each year it’s a similar template. The galleries across Surry Hills and Darlo throw open their doors to sepia shots of boys from Bondi Road. The New Theatre puts on a ground breaking play and no one can decide what they thought. The likes of Gaynor Tension, Prada Clutch, Paul Capsis and a dragon’s treasury worth of drag artists take to the stage. Legendary Sydney diva Shauna Jensen rocks the after-party and everybody sips gallery sparkling (among other things), dances too much and wears outfits too tight.
This year, the offering was coloured by something extraordinary – namely, the American song cycle Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens. The title runs the gamut – but then so does the play.
With music by Janet Hood, lyrics and verse by Bill Russell, Elegies is truly devastating. The show is a tribute to victims of HIV-AIDS and the people affected by them and is inspired by the world’s largest piece of Manchester/Community Art – the NAMES Project AIDS memorial quilt. In brief: it spends the night breaking your heart and then mending it again, and therein lies its singular joy for an audience.
Featuring an absolutely divine line-up of performers, the piece is divided between spoken verse and song. The verse goes to the people who have died from AIDS, the songs to the people in their lives, and the people affected by their death.
The first thing that should be said about Elegies is that it’s not exclusively a piece of queer art. Though AIDS is an affliction more commonly associated with the LGBTQI community, it is so often contracted by the most unlikely people. Regardless of the sufferer, Elegies weave a spell with their story and crafts soliloquies touching, tragic, funny, outrageous, delightful and downright confronting.
A gay diva talks about the joy AIDS gave him in a last hurrah. A respected businesswoman dissects where true friendship lies while a song expounds the bond between total opposites. A nurse goes from compassionate warden to beloved inmate. Bigots have their walls broken down and muscle-bound bastards run rampant as they vaingloriously attempt revenge on a world that has turned on them. There’s laughter, tears, and a great deal of time for reflection.
The script and the score orchestrate seamlessly from story to story and moment to moment, and with the Australian cast it is in spectacularly capable hands.
There are some exceptional performances on show here. A few too many southern accents, true, but not a single character not carefully and lovingly spun into something eminently watchable. Of particular note were Paul Kelly, Deidre Lee and Emma Whiteman. The latter two made me cry. Paul Kelly’s performance actually made my life flash in front my eyes! It’s rare that you see performances of such skill delivered in speeches lasting, at best, two minutes.
As for the singers, I cannot even begin to talk about them without sparing a sentence or two for Lucy Maunder. She made her entrance in the first ensemble number of the evening wearing a black power suit that rendered her legs vaguely hypnotic. She gravitated to centre stage and instantly stole the scene and the song. And that’s no easy feat considering her costars. Jason Te Patu, Paul Whitely and Belinda Wollaston are all in exceptional voice and gave the score the respectful treatment it deserved. And, in this instance, respect can only mean passionate, unflinching and, oft times, playful.
I walked out of Elegies with a genuine respect for everyone involved, and had representatives from ACON been present I would have volunteered on the spot. AIDS is so much a part of our lives in the 21st century that it’s easy to become blinkered. I’ve heard friends asking: “do people under 60 die of AIDS anymore?” Tragically for our society, many beautiful people die of AIDS everyday. As we work towards a cure, the best we can hope to do is to remember them, the good, the bad and the terrifying, and to remember them lovingly and well.
This is Elegies in spades.