YouTube is only ten years old. Like Facebook and Twitter, it’s already hard to imagine life without it. And enough people have now grown up thinking that opening your life and your secrets to the world isn’t strange. Meme Girls at Malthouse Theatre is about searching for identity by confiding to strangers on the internet.
Created by Stephen Nicolazzo, Ash Flanders and Marion Potts, the idea came from Flanders’s 2011–12 solo show that was directed by Nicolazzo, Negative Energy Inc. For all it’s self-questioning and stories about his mum, Heather, and boyfriend, Daniel, the piece was unexpectedly defined by his performance of the Horse Woman from the tv show Judge Judy.
It was astonishing. Flanders captured the heartbreak of the woman and found the pin-head spot of balance where poignancy and parody meet to create something that transcends both.
This was a drag verbatim performance of a nobody talking to a camera that doesn’t care about the death of her horses!
Meme Girls is more of this and then far more.
While it’s not easy to distract from Flanders when he’s on a stage, the design by Eugyeene Teh (set and costume) and Katie Sfetkidis (lighting) is equally as captivating and beautiful. Part–rabbit hole, part Bond-film opening sequence, part–da Vinci Vitruvian Man, it’s pure theatre and nothing like a tiny YouTube screen.
And Teh continues his exquisite use of monochrome design: this year, it’s aqua. Except Flanders who wears a white pair of tails, and his assistant, drag queen stage kitty Art Simone, in nose-bleed heels and a black corset that shows off an enviable chest.
All with a re-mixed pop soundtrack by THE SWEATS where Flanders uses those years of fronting an 80s cover band to great use; his “Confide in Me” puts Kylie to utter shame.
But in this world, Flanders isn’t Kylie, he’s women from You Tube.
He’s women who have used this anonymous-not-anonymous platform to confide in the comfort of strangers and open themselves to endless abuse. From an atrocious singer who didn’t make it though the American Idol auditions to a 68-year-old woman who’s about to become homeless, their confessions and their genuine pain are fascinating. And even if we don’t actively troll them, we’ve shared their videos and laughed at them.
And this is where Meme Girls is unique. Whereby in Negative Energy, Flanders used the Horse Woman to talk about himself, in Meme Girls it’s more like the woman are using him. Even though it’s a showcase work, it’s not about Ash. And even while it’s far more about Nicolazzo and his vision, aesthetic and obsessions, the woman still control the mood and heart of the piece.
It’s easy to laugh at the Meme Girls and it’s easy to bask in the glorious camp-cum-high-art vision on the stage (and Ash), but it’s impossible to forget the world where it comes from and to be left wondering if we’re the mean girls.