From recent events, such as the passing of The Cranberries’ singer Dolores O’Riordan to an adaptation of De Profundis, I’ve been thinking about the Emerald Isle. RIOT gave me a snapshot of its current state of mind. It’s also a variety show headlined by “The Queen of Ireland” Panti Bliss, Rory O’Neill’s flamboyant drag creation and lip-sync extraordinaire.
Melbourne last saw Panti’s one-woman show, High Heels in Low Places at Midsumma 2017. That was a tale of how she came to symbolise the “Yes” vote for marriage equality in Ireland. This time she shares the stage with other talented Irish performers, some of whom also want to make comment on their republic.
Leading the charge was street poet, Kate Brennan, with verses on the compounded disadvantage faced by an Irish teen mother, or how the poor are still neglected by the financial systems that caused the Global Financial Crisis.
To balance the wry and earnest verbal barrages, there were attempts to use humour, including in what may have been some sort of provocation. We were shown a figure with a bloodied side, wearing only white loincloth and crown. Lengths of foam ‘pool noodles’ were handed to audience members, then instructed to beat Jesus. The group did so with wild abandon.
The excesses and prolonged nature of the scene prompted some audience laughter. Some Christians, and those who don’t see violence as entertainment, might find this distasteful. I thought about Ireland’s treatment by its church, and wondered what catharsis could come from such a scene.
I recalled how in De Profundis (1987) Oscar Wilde understood the difference between Christ’s words and the harshness of church dogma. It seems unfortunate that in 2018 RIOT would throw the baby (Jesus) out with the bathwater; the one who would have offered comfort to those thought worthy of monologues here.
If I devote too many words to this short scene, it is because, for me, what followed was tinged with a strange kind of sadness. This ill-fitting emotion for a variety show took some of the gloss off of a solid collection of acts. Aerialist Ronan Brady imbued his suspended hoop routine with the gracefulness of dance.
Kooky 80’s gymnastic-dance pair, Lords of Strut (Famous Seamus – Cian Kinsella and SeanTastic – Cormac Mohally) turned a well-rehearsed lack of coordination into crowd-pleasing routines. Irish dancers (Philip Connaughton and Deirdre Griffin) earned laughs from performing Riverdance-like moves whilst wearing eccentric costumes that certainly weren’t.
A quartet of vocalists provided attention-grabbing reimaginings of songs ranging from Massive Attack’s Teardrop to Major Lazer – some of which related to forms of love. It was somewhat unfortunate that at times the music drowned out vocals on this opening night, we can hope this is fixed for the remainder. When not singing with the ensemble, Ms Bliss continued her tradition of making cheeky jibes at gays and lesbians, and herself, that the audience enjoyed.
At times aspects of the show seemed a little preachy. Maybe some of the sentiments need to be concentrated more, as some waffle dissipated the show’s momentum. Will RIOT actually inflame tempers enough to start one? Maybe not, but it’s certainly trying harder than most to incorporate political ideas relevant to both Ireland and Australia. And, it does this with a high-quality collection of acts that will entertain many.
Fairfax Studio – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St. Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Wednesday 31 January 2018 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 9 February 2018
Information and Bookings: www.artscentremelbourne.com.au
Image: Lords of Strut – photo by Fiona Morgan
Review: Jason Whyte