Barely Held Together

23 February 2018
Ash Flanders by Ayonti Mahreen Huq

Twelve litres of pink slime spill over the hunched body of Ash Flanders. The Melbourne-based gay theatre maker is in Edinburgh for the first preview of his Sisters Grimm show, Lilith, The Jungle Girl. Co-founded by Flanders and Declan Greene, Sisters Grimm has been making subversive camp theatre in Australia since 2006. Riding a wave of theatrical subversion and hilarity, Flanders and Greene overcame the financially bleak prospects for Australian theatre makers, developing a unique means of centring queer voices and experiences within narratives that have traditionally excluded them. Their latest work, Lilith, parodies the colonial fairytales of the 1800s, melding the Pygmalion myth with something like Ladette to Lady. As Flanders uncurls, in character as Lilith, he steps into the puddle of slime. With a loud squeak, a brief slip and a wet slap, he falls flat on his face.

“Lilith’s clay that we used [at the Melbourne Theatre Company] became a slime, and we hadn’t got to practise with the slime,” Flanders laughs. What was meant to be a striking moment of theatrical design quickly descended into farce.

“By the time we did our curtain call, the only way we could get off the stage—because it was so slippery—was to make a human chain and have our assistant stage manager pull me offstage using a broom to reach me.” Flanders folds his arms with a confident grin. “And Declan said that was the best show he’d ever seen.”

This is ‘queer’ theatre.

Queer is a verb to Ash Flanders: “Queer is about questioning and asking deeper questions and fucking with expectations and taking people somewhere new and exciting.” The Melbourne-based artist has been making theatre and cabaret for over a decade, creating work that lifts gay culture out of the glossy muck to which it is frequently condemned. Initially putting on shows for friends in living rooms and garden sheds, the originally grubby aesthetic that developed as a matter of circumstance soon became central to Flanders’ work. “We actually like that things look like they’re falling apart. It’s actually kind of important to that idea of queering the work or queering the world of the play—that everything is barely held together.”

While Flanders has come a long way from these impromptu spaces—with award-winning works at the Melbourne and Sydney Theatre Companies, Belvoir, and Malthouse—it is still these moments of collapse that typify Flanders’ brand of queer. Creating works that parody the child-horror films of the ‘50s, the family drama of a Southern plantation home and a 19th century opera, Flanders’ work constantly inverts the cultural hierarchy: casting a septuagenarian actor as a possessed child, modelling the ‘big daddy’ of a plantation on Colonel Sanders, embellishing an outback Australian drama with a bush doof in the third act, and ‘dressing’ a wild girl discovered by Dutch explorers in bright pink slime.

“It’s one of the hallmarks of camp, of going: ‘You think this is all disposable nothing, do you know what? I think this is better than the Sistine Chapel, I think it’s more important than the complete works of William Shakespeare.’” Flanders’ work, which also includes solo cabaret and acting gigs, exists at an intersection among queer politics, gay subculture and internet memes where nothing is safe from this iconoclastic drive. “Deconstruct, deconstruct, deconstruct,” is his mantra, “and then reconstruct something that, from far away, might look like the same thing but the closer you get you realise it’s nothing like it.”

In a 2014 production of Hedda Gabler at the Belvoir St Theatre, Flanders brought his unique style of drag to the famously female lead role. Flanders has been praised for portraying women who are ‘psychologically developed’ and ‘sincere’. “People had an idea of drag as a gag unto itself,” he says. “We’re laughing at the idea of the man as the lady the whole time, and the man might be laughing about ladies, and that’s not what I’m interested in.” In a black bathing suit, without a wig for most of the performance, Flanders produced a Hedda that was paradoxically at ease in a masculine body.

“I was being given this iconic female role and I’m a male performer and that’s a really loaded thing … and I don’t think people could necessarily get past my body.” Our conversation is drawn to this performance, which was reviewed as enigmatic and withdrawn, because, despite its critics, it succinctly captures the impact of Flanders’ oeuvre. In every role, Flanders subverts the expectations of his audience—sometimes with high-camp flamboyance, and at other times with sinister equanimity. Flanders reveals the artifice of representation, exposing the weakness of a particular assumption or stereotype from within. Rather than caricaturing femininity, as drag frequently does, Flanders interrogates the motivations and origins of performative identities. “I’m actually playing cinematic femininity, which has told a lot of women how women should be. So it’s this weird feedback loop of like, who’s emulating who here? And that’s what’s fascinating about it.”

The importance of Flanders’ work lies in its ability to discover new ways for audiences to understand the societies from which we come. Striking mainstream genres against queer culture, and fanning the flames with his own effeminate wit, Flanders’ work embellishes the questions at the core of identity. By the final scene of Lilith, Flanders’ nude body, with pink clay peeling from his skin, appears transient, threatening to dissolve—emblematic of the ambiguity any artist must navigate between performance and reality. “One of the things I’m hoping people will get is that everything’s a bit of an act.”

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