It was late last night/early this morning when I posted my response to my first Sydney Festival review for 2011.

With some shows, it is hard how to respond without the inevitable lens of my experience colouring everything I see. This is where theatre lives in me. The resonance of things around me – people I love and have loved, conversations I have had bouncing and resounding in me -an echo, reminding me, or highlighting certain truths. This performance brought out the memories of my uncle Greg.

Greg was in some ways a mythic man: tall, elegantly dressed in a dark suit in his sister’s wedding photo. My father in a cream Safari suit -in many ways his opposite. I was a teenager when I first met Greg. He had been the absent uncle who lived in Sydney, far from my country hometown. An artist, a collector of taxidermic animals, a man who’s house was heavy with kitsch (my favourite as a girl being the teapot shaped like Miss Piggy) and a drag queen who offered me his little bo-beep outfit when I was on the verge of being introduced as a Masonic Debutante…

He drank fluffy ducks, plucked his eyebrows, owned a black, irritating and nervous pomeranian called “Tuxedo” and when he returned from Sydney, he persistently survived the cruelty and the bashings a country town offers the unusual and the interesting. The last time I saw him, I was 17 and moving to Sydney. He was lying on his couch, sallow faced.. waving with a limp hand at the suitcase of “life starting things” he’d packed in a suitcase for me to take. A dustpan and broom, a can opener, a green velvet rug, a crochet blanket he’d made himself. As I said my goodbyes that day, and grabbed the yellow leather handle of the case he said “Gussie, the gay community in Sydney is wonderful – if you are ever in trouble, you’ll always find someone to help you. They always helped me.” Greg died of an AIDS related illness that year.

Everyone has someone in their like that they can to look to as an example of pure, unashamed individuality. For me I have always sought out those who, in the face of it all – expectation, normality, the beige-ness of a predictable career path – have been determined to live a life truest to how they feel and who they are. And at times, the bravest of these people have often been members of the gay community.

This review can be found:|-sydney-theatre-company.html

The Sydney Festival is upon us. Banners are flapping in the summer breeze throughout the city streets. Festival programs still fresh and flat – soon be crumpled and curled in handbags, as they are thumbed and re-thumbed at cafes, in ticket lines, during the daily commute. Somehow, before the fanfare and the thronging festival mayhem of summer concerts fringed by picnic rugs, a private conversation for public consumption opened at The Sydney Theatre Company. A conversation rich in history, sexual identity, ferocious humour, playful performances, pig-headed idealism and passionate politics: an intimate conversation between Mark Ravenhill and Bette Bourne.

When the lights dim then rise, illuminating a large, lush square of red carpet, there is a neat and friendly man ready to address us and provide a brief moment of explanation. “My name is Mitchell Butel and I am an actor.” The audience giggles and applauds. For those keen to see/hear Mark Ravenhill, one of the UK’s most provocative and controversial (and celebrated) playwrights (author of Shopping and F**king, Some Explicit Polaroids etc), they will be disappointed. Unfortunately for both Ravenhill and Australian audiences, a recent gall bladder operation has restricted him from making the journey to attend the festival with Bette Bourne. And in his place is a bright and neatly presented Australian actor, Mitchell Butel.

We are asked to imagine that the theatre is the English lounge room of Bette Bourne… we are asked to imagine Mark Ravenhill in Mitchell’s place. We are asked to settle in and listen to this presentation – complete with a slideshow, songs and sips from a golden teacup that is fit for a queen – an astounding life told in 2 hours. The queen enters, a dazzling jacket and slacks, lipstick and a sturdy working class voice that booms and bellows, chimes and charms the audience punctuated by a brutal cough and a vocal timbre that rattles, guffaws then melodically rolls over Shakespearean verse. The slideshow contains photos obtained by the show’s picture researcher Sheila Corr, and pictures from Bette’s own personal collection. We are asked to listen to a reading of a conversation, taped, transcribed and re-told by Bette and Mark (via Mitchell).

Narrating/reflecting on his life, Bette’s story speaks of social circumstances, fashion, theatre, lifestyle, lust, drag, and the general divergent thinking of a man who lived, loved differently and lived to tell the tale. Tracking the life and the attitudes of mainstream versus queer culture in the UK – from the first moments of school boy dalliances, to crossing Trafalgar square across the cobblestones in drag, to heading an OBIE award-winning internationally-touring drag show – this is a rare and precious gift to witness Bette re-tell, patiently explain, introduce all those who have touched his life, informed his decisions as a theatre maker, as queer: but ultimately as a person. This is a political show, and it’s a social show – the two are inseparable. Occasionally the frame of the theatre event itself overwhelms the story and we have slices of performance – momentary interactions, re-creations of events a reading of The Importance of Being Earnest (Bette as Bracknell, of course), a tap routine, a bawdy joke or two, a sultry song of warning/advice…

The most powerful moments in the evening are those that catch Bette in a memory, voice softens, a mild and clear truth is spoken. With the bluster and the sequins and the fabulous grandeur of it all – the remarkable experience is not the glamour or the stardom – but the domestic, everyday pain. A father unable to acknowledge a son’s achievements, an un-ending list of friend’s names lost to AIDS, the disappointment in the crumbling of a commune which was based on love and alternative ways of living.

So compelling is Bourne, that at times Butel, who is graciously probing with questions not his own, in an inherited context, and last minute situation – is lost in the moment of the story. Indeed we all are. And Butel is promptly shepherded by Bourne. We keenly listen as the swell of gratitude rises in us – gratitude for those who are examples to us all -of how to live – passionately, generously. And how to act – revealing ourselves as we are, not as we are expected to be. A Life in Three Acts is not merely a breathing biography of the grand dame of drag/British rep theatre– and stories of yore. This is a reminder to always