Panti Bliss, she of the crimson and sequinned ball gown, high heels and voluminous blonde hair, is a drag queen. She’s the alter-ego of Rory O’Neill of the small town of Ballinrobe, County Mayo in Ireland. Panti: High Heels in Low Places gives Panti the chance to tell us some of the colourful tales of her life, including her rise to becoming “Queen of Ireland”.
Her ascent to stardom began with a TV chat show appearance on the Irish National broadcaster RTE in 2014. In this spot, “depending on whose lawyers you speak to”, Panti “may or may not” have accused certain journalists and other public figures of homophobia. The backlash against these comments led to RTE paying compensation to the named figures, whilst Panti was accused of hate speech.
RTE effectively censored Panti’s comments by removing the interview from their website. This got the general public talking about the justifiability of the legal action against Panti. Finally people were discussing the continuing discrimination against gays and lesbians. By maintaining her profile through various speeches, Panti becoming the face of the successful ‘Yes’ vote campaign for same-sex marriage in the Irish Plebiscite of 2015.
Whilst Panti gave us an overview of this period, it was a bit sparse in places. I found that I obtained a more cohesive view of the times in Ireland from a little YouTube research prior to the show. Actually, cohesion wasn’t generally the strong suit of Panti: High Heels in Low Places. There was some overlong and largely fruitless audience participation in introductions and getting us to declare our orientations by show of hands. Some of the stories seemed to ramble on a bit, and it was surprising to feel interest waning given the adventures of the person before us.
We were offered various scattered stories from Panti’s/Rory’s history, “I can’t really do timelines” Panti said more than once. Whilst many anecdotes seemed to resonate with and amuse pockets of the gay men in attendance, many of us didn’t get such a payoff. This made the first half feel a bit of a dry lecture at times. Further exploration of Panti’s small-town origins would have given us more insight into her evolution.
The second half was a much stronger and snappier effort overall, at least in part because it gave us more variety. A tale of how Panti and a friend posing as his sister scammed a US chat show for a free trip to New York was an amusing use of video. Panti gave us one taste of the lip-synch art of the drag queen – this showed that she truly is a capital Q Drag Queen in a performance of total commitment.
At the end of Panti: High Heels in Low Places, some may have questions, like “What did that title mean?” or “But what did Panti do to get onto RTE in the first place?” Maybe to worry about this too much is to miss the inspiring nature of Panti’s story for outsiders of any sort. Panti shows us that it’s not necessarily the best orator or loudest voice that can spark a movement for change, it’s the person with the courage to speak up.
Panti: High Heels in Low Places
Fairfax Studio – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St. Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Thursday 2 February 2017 – 6.30pm
Season: 2 – 4 February 2017
Image: Panti Bliss
Review: Jason Whyte