A razor-sharp parody of Australian hypocrisy, with dangerously empty moments: Robert Reid on the Batmania bus tour at Melbourne Fringe
Note: As always, spoilers, big ones, all the way through.
Batmania is a work in two parts presented by The Very Good Looking Initiative at Theatreworks this fringe. One half, the 2019 Batmania Expo, takes place in the theatre; the other is a guided bus tour around the streets of St Kilda to see the sights and sites of Batmania. We took the tour.
The premise for both Batmanias is a Nightville-esque world stretched paper thin over the country we know. It takes the clichés of Australian tourism and highlights the darkness and weirdness underneath them. The strange but familiar nature of Batmania is unsettling from the start: the rictus-like smiles of the presenters, the gull-headed mascot who welcomes us to the tour, te slightly dodgy looking shop front where we meet, the deliberately poor quality of the introduction video. It all contributes a menacing undertone to the atmosphere.
In the shopfront we are welcomed to Batmania by a pre-recorded video – you may have seen some of this doing the rounds on Facebook – that gives us a snapshot introduction to the culture and history of the fictional Batmania. It’s the kind of place Australia tried to convince the world it was through the eighties and nineties – a sundrenched beachside playground for enthusiastic, athletic white people.
They are the slogans and the daggy family-friendly sensibilities that are stretched paper thin over an abyss of stolen land, domestic violence and barely disguised racism. Just as with Australia itself, the reality is darker and more disturbing. It’s cracked and hidden face is revealed in glimpses where the production values become so low they can’t keep the mask up. Accidentally captured off camera moments reveal a snarling, lost and nasty side to the presenters. Fear and horror stalk the dunes and nightclubs. Staticky jump cuts show glimpses of the homeless, street violence and other dark undercurrents of the city. It’s in these moments when the mask slips that Batmania is at its best.
There’s a lot of potential in the bus tour of Batmania – driving back past Theatre Works and being waved at from the street by the mascot was a nice touch – but its also pretty hit and miss.
For instance, although we’re instructed that when the bus is stationary we can take off our seat belts and move around, when it comes time do that, if you’re seated at the back of the bus or in a window seat and are more than five foot tall, you may struggle to see a great deal of the action. I spend the first 20 minutes or so being driven around in the dark, staring out into the gloom and noticing just how dark St Kilda is at night. The route we take makes it feel like there’s nothing out there.
This is cleverly enhanced by the dialogue between the two guides, which comments on the landscape that isn’t there. The empty plot of dark nothing that is the Batmania Sofitel (which is undergoing renovations and so is consequently not there) is an acute metaphor of the experience, a kind of magic trick that relies on our imaginations to project onto the absences we’re being shown. It’s a kind of hiding in plain sight; unless, that is, I just can’t see what everyone else is looking at.
There are long periods where I can’t see anything. Trapped in the seats, the action is blocked by the heads of passengers and headrests. I can’t stand up because I’m under the overhead compartment and there is no up. My deep apologies to the audience member in front of me, who must have had my knees in their back all night.
We do seem to have caught the tour on the same night as a bus full of jerks who are more interested in amusing themselves than experiencing the tour. They start out reasonably well behaved and attentive but as the evening goes on they become more rowdy. They pass jokes between themselves. They call out to the driver and the guides in a defensive kind of playing along. I wonder if this is a failure to balance the story telling with the immersion. I notice it most in the audience when early on we drive to a darkened spot and sit parked by the beach. Here the guides go outside the bus to argue (they are a couple who have moved recently to Batmania and are clearly having personal issues which are affecting their job as guides). Guide Raymond (Raymond Martini) goes out for a break and falls from the beach wall out of our sight. We have been warned not to touch the sand while here in Batmania.
Once Raymond returns and stands ominously outside the bus, and Guide Vidya (Vidya Rajan) goes out to get him, things begin to shift. As the guides begin to turn monstrous the first of us to speak mutters “oh, is this gonna get bad because I am not okay.” It’s meant as bravado, but I think everyone can hear the uncertainty that bravado is masking. Here the jollying along starts. Other passengers urge the driver to drive on and leave the guides (who are now outside the bus). They’re playing along, yes, but there’s no sense of where the boundaries are.
The cries of “drive on!” become instructions to run the guide over. “Hit him. Just hit him.” Knowing full well that, of course, this is just a play and the driver isn’t ever actually going to drive into the actor on the street. The cries of “hit him” return once we have driven away, only now they’re directed at pedestrians on the street, people going about their evening, trying to get home, walking their dogs. That’s sorta ugly. It might be uglier than anything the show was deliberately trying to show us.
I suppose it might have been intentional. If it was, I have real concerns about permissions and ethics; but I remain sceptical. Either way, maybe the audience is feeling uncomfortable but has no way to meaningfully express it and so turn feral. There’s more to be said here about how a faux panic attack might be good for a laugh but compromises the trust between performers and players for the sake of a cruel joke; but in the interest of brevity I’ll move on.
This kind of creeping horror feels absolutely right for a razor-sharp parody of Australian hypocrisy, but as an immersive work it needs a lot more attention paid to how it achieves its effects and how it exists in the world.
After the scene at the beach, we drive on to get petrol at a local BP. The guides are back into the bus and are now moving up and down the aisles in a zombie-like manner, or having fits of some sort at either end of the bus. Loud heavy metal is blasting and the cabin lights flick on and off. As a pay off for the tension built on the beach, it’s a bit underwhelming.
The scene at the BP is another moment that plays dangerously in the real world to no real purpose and is likely born out of inattention to the world outside the performance. The driver (Elliott Gee) goes into the BP, leaving us in the bus waiting while he buys a snack. Is the clerk at the counter in on the gag? Is the customer who comes in after him?
I couldn’t see what was happening in the store but the audience provided a running commentary as I stared out the window into the darkness behind the lights of the service station at the empty, dark beach, with Luna Park an insignificant bright blot in the distance. “He’s getting a banana. He’s complaining about it to the guy at the counter. What’s he doing now?” Meanwhile the guides have snuck out of the bus and run off into the night, frothing at the mouth, wild-eyed, one armed with a cricket bat (my personal weapon of choice for the apocalypse also).
How much of the outside world is in on this gag? How much must they be, for it to be okay? The faces of the people in the BP as we drove on again didn’t look like they knew what was going on.
With the return of the driver, we are off on a chase to track down the feral guides. We find them not too far onoff down the road close to the ocean. Cars pull up slowly behind us, park and drive off again. This chasing around after the zombies has run its course, as the two guides bash the bus driver with Vidya’s cricket bat. What have the cars behind us seen?
After a moment the driver recovers and returns to the bus, declaring the tour to be over. We drive once more past the empty beach, I’m not sure why, nothing more happens there… and then back to Theatre Works to catch the last of the Expo. The tensions built up by the experience are left unresolved, hovering to what end? The satire-become-horror concludes as bewilderment. A dazzled, wait, huh? Which is what I mean about potential that’s hit and miss.
There’s much more in this 90 minutes which is commendable. It is full of ideas, but their execution needs focus and care for the audience and world outside. Batmania feels uncontrolled. Heavy on the mania, light on the bat. In between the good ideas and interesting things there are long stretches of empty, sometimes dangerous, air.
Batmania (The Bus Tour), written and devised by Elliott Gee, Raymond Martini, Vidya Rajan and Indiah Mone. Concept, created and directed by Elliott Gee of The Very Good Looking Initiative. Theatre Works at Melbourne Fringe. Until September 21. Bookings