Coming out of last year’s pandemic, two clowning shows – The Anniversary and Jofus and the Whale – show very different aspects of the art, says Robert Reid
It’s perhaps fitting that the return of live theatre to Melbourne showcases two clown shows. The year we’ve all lived through has felt by turns absurd, ridiculous and tragic – what better art form to reflect that than clowning?
At 45 Downstairs, perennial favourites Claire Bartholomew and Dan Tobias presented their newest work, The Anniversary, and at the Carlton Courthouse, La Mama showed Lily Fish’s solo tour de force, Jofus and the Whale. While I don’t want to go into too much detail recounting Fish’s work – Gully Thompson has already done an admirable job of it here – I do want to compare these two works a little because there are interesting similarities and differences between them. Also, I saw them back-to-back over the weekend and I’m finding it hard to separate the two when I think about them.
Bartholomew and Tobias are doubtless one of Australia’s finest and most prolific clowning duos. Bartholomew has been clowning since the mid-’90s, creating the unforgettable characters for The Business and The Concert, and is also part of the deeply dark clown troupe The Long Pigs, while Tobias began working with Rawcus in the early 2000s and created his solo project, The Orchid and the Crow, in 2015. Together they’re responsible for works as memorable as Sunny Ray and the Magnificent Moon and the iconic Die Rotten Punkte. Fish, on the other hand, is a founding member of the remarkable queer comedy ensemble, PO PO MO CO, and presented the predecessor of this work, Jofus and the Plank, here in Melbourne in 2019 and at the New Zealand Fringe in 2020.
The development and presentation of both shows were affected by the lockdowns. The Anniversary was to have debuted at the Malthouse as part of the 2020 MICF, and Jofus and the Whale was developed during lockdown last year. Their time in the theatres this year was interrupted by the circuit-breaker lockdown earlier this month and both have done their best to recover and soldier on in the few days left remaining of their seasons.
All three are extraordinary physical performers, comics and story tellers but the effect of the lockdown on these shows is perhaps more evident in one than the other.
The Anniversary, directed by and devised with Peter Houghton, introduces us to Jim and Barb on the day of their 50th anniversary. The aging couple go through the rituals and routines of their day as they prepare for the party to celebrate their golden day. Of course, things don’t go well for them and a series of misunderstandings and miscommunications cause all manner of clowny chaos.
Jofus and the Whale, directed by and devised with the other half of Fish and Twiner’s Bait Shop, Kimberly Twiner, and founder of The Travelling Sisters, Ell Sachs, blends the stories of Ahab and Moby Dick with the biblical Jonah and the whale, with a dash of Captain Hook. Jofus, the clown, takes us on a journey into the belly of the whale and the desperate measures it takes to escape. Both shows can take surprisingly dark turns, but the physical comedy remains a light relief throughout. In Jofus and the Whale, the physical comedy occasionally overwhelms the clarity of the story telling but I’m nevertheless always clear about my emotional and imaginative investment in the work; but by the end of The Anniversary, where the physical comedy is always crystal clear, I’m not sure what I’m meant to feel.
Although the characterisation of Jim and Barb is immediately recognisable – a grey-haired aged couple – there is something unsettling about them. They speak mostly gibberish, largely only able to say their names, and they potter about getting things ready for the party in various states of crankiness and forgiveness with each other. It takes me a while to understand what is bothering me about them, and it’s a creeping sense of perhaps unintentional ageism.
They wake in the morning and there follows a string of fart jokes and toilet humour that I bet would kill with an audience of primary school children. As it is, the older audience are cautiously on board at first, recognising the stereotypes – old men need to pee a lot, old ladies can’t remember which pills they’ve taken – or perhaps just having the comfortable reaction of seeing shtick that is familiar and predictable. It seems to wear off as the audience becomes quieter as the show goes on.
There is a fairly consistent low rumble of chuckling – the lady sitting next to me seemed to be enjoying herself the whole way through – but it never reaches much of a crescendo. This might not merely be the audience tiring of the scatological humour, but might also be a growing unease at the direction the story is taking. The “happy anniversary” banner they bring out tears in two as they try to put it up. They hang it up, nonetheless. The poop jokes and fart gags continue.
The domestic setting gradually reveals elements of the world outside their house that are confusing. When they go outside, there seems to be a tempestuous gale blowing constantly. Jim is sent out to buy groceries by Barb and exits fighting the wind – created with a leaf blower held by a stage hand – only to return moments later with flies buzzing around him, sweat stains that made me want to gag, and red paint daubed on his face. Barb too goes outside at one point and returns with the same red paint. So I guess perhaps this is sunburn?
Smoke starts to pour in through the opened door at one point and whoever goes out returns increasingly filthy, Barb finally returning with a face black with soot. It puts me in mind of the bushfires of 2020 (remember those) – so are they living in a pre-apocalyptic time only a few years on from now? The description on 45 Downstairs’ website says “Meanwhile, Greta Thunberg is on the TV telling them that the world is on fire and it’s all their fault,” which makes me think that is what’s happening here; but in the production itself I don’t see any kind of context to make this clear.
Also, the Greta-bashing in that description is kind of weird. I think it’s meant to parody the aging baby-boomers climate denialism, but the parody part seems to be missing. I wonder if some of that older audience might feel the same way about Greta. In any case, though much business is made of this, very little is made of its narrative consequences. Instead, it just hangs there, like the smoke in the background.
The humour often falls back on cruel stereotypes of the elderly which seem lazy to me. While the traditions of clowning do, of course, play on stereotypes and scatology, this feels a lot less invested with thought. Shitty underpants and empty toilet rolls are brandished, pendulous old men testicles swing freely from footy shorts. There’s zero challenge in these jokes and zero effort. There’s nothing that reveals a deeper truth or tragedy here, just half-baked physical comedy that I think Bartholomew and Tobias are better than. If I were elderly, I think I’d have been offended. On reflection, I sorta think I was anyway.
The two characters are by turns sweet and sour. Barb seems to be desperately unhappy in the relationship, disappointed, frustrated, angry or disgusted by Jim. Jim, on the other hand, seems a hapless stooge, literally deaf to Barb’s complaints, eager to please her but also not motivated to get out of his own way. He fakes a cough to earn her sympathy and to get out of a fight, he brings home shopping that is for his own benefit more than the anniversary party (here’s there’s the classic gag of a bag filled with things that couldn’t possible fit it, including a garish cricket bat, a nerf rifle and a pool noodle). Naw, aren’t men just such loveable, thoughtless doofuses…
Barb threatens to leave Jim because his careless spending and selfishness is ruining them but she’s easily won around when he makes an effort to set up the party. That effort however, includes cutting up the pool noodle to make a pretend cheese platter, and crumbling up cat food to serve as pate. Here again, is some of that uncomfortable ageism – sometimes old people eat pet food. Is that funny?
The best moments are when they are together at the party itself. The house lights come up on the audience, turning us onto the party guests. I was really, really hoping at this point that we’d be invited up to dance with them and to try some of the party favours. Breaking the fourth wall and allowing us into their world would transform what had so far been a disappointing and intellectually sloppy affair. That didn’t happen.
Instead, they play the eager-to-please hosts, with Jim now in football shorts with his suit jacket because he’s shat his pants right before the guests arrived. They sing a song in their gibberish, and it’s clearly a song about their love for and reliance on each other. They even get us the audience to sing along with the gibberish, and it works quite well. In this moment, they are the sweet old couple that might well have lived this long together because of each other and for each other, the caring grandparents we all maybe need as we recover from 2020.. They’re showing us the redeeming qualities of this horrible pair.
It doesn’t last, though. Jim shits himself again, and in an effort to fix it, hides behind the table, swapping his pants for the table cloth (which has had a hole burnt in it by the fires outside). This reveals his low hanging old man balls. Dan does the pathos of the old man very well and I feel for him in the moments where Barb is berating him; but there’s a lot of that. She scolds him all the time, she reduces him to tears when she threatens to leave and beats him with the pool noodle. It’s not super comfortable to watch in a contemporary atmosphere of domestic abuse and cruelty to the elderly.
This intensifies when, once the party guests have left, horrified by Jim’s balls, an enraged Barb beats him with the cricket bat. It’s clear she intends to kill him. They chase each other around in an extended French farce corridor sequence, and they stab each other repeatedly with the kitchen knives they got as an anniversary present. This doesn’t kill either of them, although it graphically puts that image in my head, and they continue to duel with umbrella and radio antenna.
This carries on until it becomes what seems like an absurd afterlife sequence. It’s hard to tell because there’s little context or explanation of this either. I imagine it’s hard to give a lot of context when all you can say is “Jim” or “Barb”. They float around in smoke and shifting lights that suggests an ocean. Barb climbs onto the table and Jim floats back and forth until she allows him on to the table with her, only to turn on him and push him under the water to drown.
Then the lights go out and the show is over.
I think it’s trying to tread a line between the comedy and tragedy, a clowning depiction of Australian suburban horror films. I’m not sure it manages to keep its balance. What was the point of putting these images in my head? What was the point of conjuring these horrific things if not to comment on them, to make us laugh and think and feel? These didn’t even make me laugh. I’m horrified more than amused, but is that what I’m meant to feel? Why? The show doesn’t make it clear so, like I say, I don’t know. I guess I’ve just come to expect more sophisticated work from Bartholomew and Tobias.
Of course, this is a work that has been affected by the times in which it was created. Lockdown last year can’t have made for an easy environment in which to create cohesive work, nor to hold it together over the year while trying to find it a new home. The lockdown landing just before opening night must also have been no picnic.
Still. If this is what was going to be shown at the Malthouse at the Comedy Festival last year, it makes me think the concept may have been flawed from the beginning.
In contrast, in Jofus and the Whale, Lily Fish uses the same skills to create an engrossing world with just the use of her flailing limbs and, most crucially, her absolute awareness and complicity with the audience. She reacts to our noises, plays up to our applause, talks to us, invites us in and explains things that may not be immediately clear.
Her restlessly inventive use of her physicality creates an underwater world that is very clear in my head. Jofus and the Whale is cinematic in its scope, going from long shots to close-ups, cutting between concurrent moments, flipping from using just her hands to using her whole body. The wonderful moment when her uncle Ahab is swimming in the sea as the Whale approaches to bite off his leg is deftly achieved with two fingers bobbing the air like the legs of a swimmer at the surface, and then a close-up of the swimmer pouring blood out the now legless stump.
The images of the whale, at a distance and in extreme close-up, are simple and evocative. The yawning whale body and eerie whale song are so simply conveyed with the movement of one little fingers and nasal whine. The close-up of the giant whale’s eye, using just her forearms and face, remind me of the T-Rex eye in Jurassic Park. The angler fish, Roger, is brilliantly achieved by a jutted-out jaw and throwing an arm up straight above her head, wrist dangling as the glowing esca, or lure (I would have loved a little hand torch in there to be the light and to give options for lighting the angler fish’s face).
There are plenty of scatological moments in Jofus and the Whale too, but here they don’t seem so grinding and cringey. Maybe it’s because I’m only imagining whale faeces, even if it is tonnes of it, instead of human excrement, as in The Anniversary; but I think it’s more likely that its presence is more internally consistent with the setting. Jofus must escape the whale’s belly and, barred from exiting the mouth by the baleen, must exit via the other end. There’s a narrative reason for it here, whereas in The Anniversary it seems like a place holder for a better joke.
The constant reminder of Jim’s incontinence allows him and Barb no dignity. If we laugh, we laugh at them. The laughter in Jofus and the Whale is instead directed at the terrible situation in which hapless clown finds themselves caught. Fish calls herself out on it too, stepping out of the moment to take on the voice of the disgusted prudish critic, complaining that the reliance on the poop jokes is immature, and then gleefully reminding us that she herself is responsible for them.
Crucially, the clowning in Jofus and the Whale illustrates the story and illuminates the characters. Fish allows herself more language than Bartholomew and Tobias, which helps a lot: she uses clown gibberish but with a much fuller lexicon so that, no matter how garbled, it gives us a much clearer understanding of what the physicality is meant to represent. Bartholomew and Tobias, on the other hand, place a very strict limit on themselves which means that the physical work becomes lost when the story becomes more surreal.
In Jofus and the Whale the clown is always in the room with us – there’s no fourth wall, and the lights don’t ever come down on us in the audience – and this helps us play along. We respond to her demands for applause. In The Anniversary, there’s a very definite fourth wall until we are cast as the party guests. We can willingly abandon reality for Fish because we exist with her in theatre where the story is being told, but Bartholomew and Tobias’s fourth wall makes us imagine Jim and Barb and their world as more real than ours, and so it’s harder to accept the wilder aspects of that world.
Fish’s physicality is fantastically precise most of the time, but there are moments when that clarity gets lost in the frenetic energy that suffuses her every movement. I sometimes don’t quite get what I’m seeing until she says what it is and sometimes the whirling between scenes and character, spinning like a top to distinguish the breaks, carries over into the image that follows it. Still, it’s the last show of the season – and it looks exhausting.
Jofus and the Whale is genuinely funny and surprising and endearing. There’s precision in the performance but – more importantly – there’s clarity in the conceptualisation. Each moment seems to have been thought carefully through and, despite its development under lockdown and its interrupted season, it feels complete.
The Anniversary still feels like a first draft. There are ideas here that, in the cold light of day, should be closely examined to see if they’re really saying what they seem to be and there are choices that hinder the clarity of the work. Bartholomew and Tobias are terrific, engaging and accomplished performers. Sadly, I don’t think The Anniversary is worthy of them.
The Anniversary, performed and devised by Clare Bartholomew and Dan Tobias. Directed and devised by Peter Houghton. Lighting and Set design by Bronwyn Pringle. Sound design and composition by Ben Hense. Presented at 45 Downstairs.
Jofus and the Whale, Devised by Lily Fish, Ell Saches and Kimberley Twiner. Directed by Kimberley Twiner. Lighting design by Lisa Mibus. Performed by Lily Fish. Presented at La Mama Carlton Courthouse.