‘No matter how threatened he may feel by “them”, he is still the one to be feared, the one with the power’: New Review critic Georgia Mill ponders the angry straight white man in Ben Grant’s The Rug
The image of a lush tree with leaves falling is projected in front of us. A voiceover booms around the Courthouse, the wooden acoustics adding to the complex soundscape that performer and sound designer Ben Grant has created. The voice talks of Halloween and Samhain (pronounced Saahwin), the ancient Gaelic festival that is the origin of Halloween. A fiery circle like a red-hot sun begins to spin and burn in the centre of the projection. Is an extinction coming?
A solo male performer (Grant) dressed in white and wearing a toupee enters and begins to sing. The performance has been described as an electopera: an electronic, ‘data dense’, multilayered opera. In true operatic style the surtitles are projected alongside the song, both of them in English – a kind of double reading. They appear above the performer on a long rug mounted high on the wall, a hall runner that is both lavish and worn.
The character announces that he works in waste. He is dressed in all white and pulls plastic bags from his sleeves and places them on his head. With clever manipulation and humour, he is transformed into a fisherman out at sea. A new piece of plastic rises up like a cone or a cylinder on his head, referencing both religious iconography and white supremacist groups. He sings about his youth, about belonging at the milk bar eating pies and lollies, about being told he was special.
We watch the performer become more and more agitated by “them”, by how he has to hand over his “specialness” to them. As he’s backed into a corner feeling scared and angry, Paul Lim’s responsive and complex lighting design turns red and casts high shadows behind the character. We all know you’re not supposed to corner a frightened animal – this is a good way to get hurt.
Grant’s character is manic and unpredictable. At one point he yells “not bloody likely” so loudly that I’m struck by a familiar kind of fear. It’s the kind of fear women know well: the terror of being made to feel small, of having force used against us, of checking over our shoulders, of smiling to appease a monster. As women, we are made to feel like our bodies have to bend and contort to make way for others. Others who are stronger have a greater claim to space than we do. This is masculinity at its ugliest. By replicating this fear in the performance, the character demonstrates that no matter how threatened he may feel by “them”, he is still the one to be feared, the one with the power.
An interview with Grant in The Sydney Morning Herald comments on the parallels he is drawing between opera as an art form, with its privilege and prestige, and the power of straight white middle-class men. With the inclusion of opera and the elements that go alongside it, The Rug shines a contemptuous light on the traditions that hold up and legitimise white European male privilege. Grant tells the horror story of Australia’s colonisation in conjunction with a satirical take on the origins of white male supremacy, looking at its hypocrisy, pomp and illegitimate claims to power and sovereignty.
The set and prop design (Herbz and Rah Creations) in the performance are impressive but simple, using items fashioned from plastic bags and the arrangement of cleverly positioned rostra. My highlight is a dinosaur costume, made from plastic sheets, bottles and bags, that Grant slips into and wears like a cloak. The lighting catches the silhouette as the dinosaur lumbers slowly about the stage, knowing that its time is almost up.
His performance was demanding and impressive, but I often found it hard to access. It was an intense sensory experienc and left little time for reflection. Was he purposefully alienating us so we felt separate from him, so the audience was his “other”? There was so much material and so many layers to digest. I missed references, and found myself catching images but remaining unsure what they meant, following one train of thought only to be abruptly led to another. I got the feeling this performance wasn’t meant for me. Perhaps I’m right. I wonder how we could get a group of angry white men in here to sit through and unpack it.
While there’s an important shift taking place in attitudes towards equality and privilege, we still have a long way to go. I’m left wondering if we are really ready for solo male performers making shows about the erosion of their power (albeit ironically). At the same time, I believe that shutting down conversations drives them underground, which is when they become most dangerous and toxic. We need more spaces to unpack these troubling and corrosive ideas.
The question is, who is going to facilitate these conversations, and who are we inviting to the table? I felt that this performance might have benefitted from having another voice in the show, so we could begin to unpack, not just the experience of the character, but their impact on the “other”. Making a performance about male privilege and choosing to only have one performer in it (instead of an ensemble) is still only telling one kind of story. What can we do to change this inherited self-importance?
It seems to me that The Rug could be the first act of a performance in which the second half looks harder at what to do once the angry straight white man has been exposed. To those of us who are not straight and male, these men have always been visible. It’s what we come together to do about the problem that is really important.
The New Review program is a collaboration between Witness and Footscray Community Arts Centre West Writers that nurtures and mentors new critical voices. It is part of Malthouse Theatre’s Living Now resident writers program, funded through the MPA Collaborations program, and has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body.
The Rug, Created and Performed by Ben Grant, Co-Designed by Herbz, Lighting Designed by Paul Lim (Additive), Set Construction by Rah Creations, La Mama Courthouse. Until 11 November. Bookings
La Mama Courthouse and this venue is fully accessible for all patrons.