Theatre

This year’s Melbourne and Sydney Fringe Festivals put together lively online programs that prove theatre can successfully translate to screen. By Robert Reid.

Melbourne and Sydney Fringe Festivals go online

Jon Bennett in Fire in the Meth Lab.
Credit: Supplied

For the second year in a row, the Fringe Festivals in Sydney and Melbourne have been all but cancelled by the lockdowns of the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s a testament to the resilience and tenacity of the performers that this year so many live events were able to transition from planned in-person performance to digital presentations. Although many were unable to make that leap, those who did manage it have largely been very successful.

What’s most striking is how many shows share core themes. The need for human connection, the support of family and community and the bond we all share as individuals under enormous strain has – unsurprisingly – been common across much of the work. The persistence of live performance during such trying times underlines the importance of events that provide an umbrella for people to make and share new performance. Each work is a reminder that none of us is alone.

The Sydney Fringe digital season titled The Essence of Fringe, along with its Global Fringe program, packaged a few hand-picked events by local and international artists, most of which were prerecorded earlier this year. An excellent example is Jon Bennett’s Fire in the Meth Lab.

Bennett has been performing his hour-long solo shows around the world for more than 15 years and has won an impressive collection of awards, including the Critics’ Choice at Orlando Fringe and the Funniest Show Award at the London Fringe, as well as a Golden Gibbo nomination. His best-known works are solo storytelling. Fire in the Meth Lab focuses on his relationship with his older brother Tim, an ice addict serving time in prison for cooking meth for the oldest bikie gang in Adelaide.

Although the story is full of outrageous anecdotes featuring drug dealers, high-speed car chases and exploding houses, at its heart is Bennett’s quest to understand his love for his older brother despite Tim’s terrible decisions and the awful tortures he causes his younger brother. As Bennett plaintively asks his audience, “How do you love an arsehole?”

Clad in black except for his brown leather shoes, Bennett has an almost manic energy as he stalks the stage, recounting stories of their isolated upbringing on a farm in a strictly religious family. He reminds me of Bill Hicks but without the morality or the politics. Bennett’s great gift as a performer is his down-to-earth relatability.

His accounts of the time his brother blew up the meth lab in his home and then fled, taking all the meth with him, or a Pentecostal church camp where Tim faked possession by demons and was beaten with Bibles to exorcise him, are leavened with stories of playing board games together as children. Tim’s favourite, and only, board game was a kind of Trivial Pursuit based on Jason Donovan. Between darker sections, Bennett returns to this game, quizzing the audience with the cards to prove that it was a real thing. Ultimately, Bennett concludes that how you love an arsehole is that, when they’re family, you just do. It’s hard not to empathise with the little brother who still loves his big brother even though he’s just told us all the reasons why he shouldn’t. It shows how persistent and tricky familial love can be.

For the Melbourne Fringe, Lab Kelpie presents a digital reading of Sally Faraday’s Dog Park. Lab Kelpie is a well-respected, independent theatre company that does the important work of making space for new Australian writing; their previous works include Petra Kalive’s Oil Babies, Douglas Rintoul’s Elegy and Katy Warner’s A Prudent Man.

Dog Park is a problematic play that nonetheless uses the digital format very effectively. Set around a dog-walking park in the affluent eastern suburbs of Melbourne, it uses a classic police procedural to expose the underbelly of the privileged residents. Two detectives are investigating the murder of an international student from the local private boys’ school, whose burnt and mutilated body has been found in the park.

An impressive cast familiar from main stages and television recorded themselves at home during the most recent Victorian lockdown, making good use of simple props sourced from their houses – glasses of wine, business cards, mobile phones – to give their worlds a sense of corporeality. Similarly, the editing and production use simple but clever devices to effectively communicate the sense of movement and presence this work would have in a theatre. The actors appear to make eye contact with each other from their isolated screens in a fashion reminiscent of The Brady Bunch opening credits. Their screens fade in and out or grow and shrink to suggest distance, and a soundtrack of environmental and off-screen noises completes the picture. The results are compelling.

The text itself, while competently written, is rife with cringeworthy moments. Jokes about gender fluidity, homophobia and racism seem intended to highlight the ignorance and prejudice of these characters but fail to interrogate them, which risks reaffirming the subject of its critique: a real danger of satire.

These issues run deeper than just the jokes. The only character who is explicitly a person of colour, the international student, Raji, is killed at the very beginning. His death is merely the catalyst for the stories of other, mostly white, people. Likewise, without wanting to spoil the mystery, the treatment of the two gay characters at the end reinforces a tired trope of gay representation. The most impactful and truthful story is that of Terry, the investigating sergeant, whose assault at a high-school formal 20 years before drives her rage at the entitlement of the park’s habitués in a way that feels genuine.

Even so, Dog Park is a well-structured play, and the production and acting are very strong. Bert LaBonté, Mike McLeish, Jane Clifton and Sharon Davis are all standouts.

Both these productions translated extremely effectively to the screen. More importantly, they still felt like live theatre. These are works that were clearly intended for an audience in the same room as the production and they retain a quality of writing and performance that is markedly different from that of film or television.

Sydney and Melbourne Fringe have fundraising drives in place – Sydney Fringe through the We’ll Fringe Again program, and Melbourne Fringe through their Phoenix Fund – to support performers to keep creating works for the coming year. Although the messaging around these programs could be clearer about how the money raised will be distributed to artists, it’s obvious there is still plenty of life left in these communities.

I guess you can’t keep a good Fringe down. 

The Melbourne Fringe Festival continues until October 17.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 16, 2021 as "Digital fringe".

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Robert Reid is a Melbourne theatre historian, critic and playwright.