Alison Croggon reviews Romeo is Not the Only Fruit and Fleabag at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival
When MICF rolls into town, my first instinct is to hide. The Comedy Festival is, as the website proudly proclaims, one of the three biggest in the world and, with attendances of 770,000, Australia’s biggest ticketed cultural event. This adds up to 612 shows playing in more than 100 venues.
This is clearly an excellent thing for everyone except critics. Even if critics spend their entire conscious existence through April reviewing festival acts (looking at you, Richard Watts and Anne-Marie Peard) it’s impossible to see more than a tiny percentage. Me, I just wilt. My excellent life planning means I am currently working on three four major projects so, at a rough calculation, I saw about 0.000001% of what was on. My overview of MICF is that of an ant looking up at a moose. But there it is.
Among the acts I did see were two by young women, both part of the Malthouse Theatre’s MICF season. They were feminist performances by and about women and, as women are as various as any other kinds of people, they reflected different aspects of feminist thinking and being in the world. And they were both, in profoundly different ways, very funny.
The show that left me with a singing heart (we all want our hearts to sing, right?) was Jean Tong’s Romeo is Not the Only Fruit, billed as “Australia’s only lesbian electropop musical”. It premiered last year at the Butterfly Club as part of the Poppyseed Festival, and has been further developed for the MICF season at the Malthouse Theatre.
In this deliciously subversive romp, Tong bends cultural references from Shakespeare, Jane Austen, musicals and romcoms into a stinging critique of the all-too-common trope “Bury Your Gays” (aka “Dead Lesbian Syndrome”). Juliet (Margot Tanjutco) lives in the Asian city of Verona, a city as fictitious as Brecht’s Mahagonny or, indeed, Shakespeare’s Italy. Her mother and grandmother are bringing home all the eligible bachelors because Juliet must marry and have babies to continue the maternal line. Juliet, however, has other ambitions: she wants to be a pilot and fly away from her suffocating family.
And then…she meets her Romeo/Darcy (Louisa Wall): a tall redhead with a bitter past. It’s bitter because as soon as Darcy falls in love and finds happiness, her lover dies. Juliet’s chorus of three guardian angels, the Incompetent Dead Lesbians (Pallavi Waghmode, Sasha Chong and Nisha Joseph) attempt to nix the romance budding under their noses in order to save her life. Naturally their attempts fail.
Tong manages this chaos of referents with a supple, incisive wit, taking plenty of sideswipes along the way. One of the highlights is “We are so not racist”, a dinner party scene in which white-skinned Darcy is comprehensively othered with an avalanche of microaggressions. Another is a scene in a gay nightclub that has some brilliant pisstakes on performance art (including an eye-watering vagina mime). The performances are huge fun, the songs are beautifully orchestrated and wow, can these women sing. If you missed it, put it down as a must on its surely inevitable return. And watch out for Jean Tong.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, the play behind the phenomenally successful television series, is part of Malthouse Theatre’s main season and headlined its MICF line-up. This show didn’t leave my heart singing: rather, I came home with my heart all shrivelled up. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: but it did leave me with a bit of untangling. I’m by no means averse to art that dives into the bleaker side of living: I’ve often argued for its necessity. So what was this hovering depression? Is it me or them? (It’s me.)
Fleabag’s nameless protagonist (played by Maddie Rice and hereafter called Fleabag because grammar is annoying) is a mess. A compulsive sex addict, she has just broken up with her on-again, off-again boyfriend Harry, and is desperately seeking a job. She is at the tail end of a failing business, a guinea pig-themed café she set up with her best friend Boo, who accidentally killed herself after Fleabag fucked her boyfriend. She lives in the shadow of her successful, anorexic older sister, who is married to an arsehole.
Waller-Bridge’s play – which is much, much darker than the television series – opens up the emptiness of self in a woman raised in the psychological brutality of patriarchy. The guinea pig comes off worst of all, but nobody escapes the vortex of damage that Fleabbag creates in her increasingly desperate attempts to generate a sense that she exists.
The play is clear on where that damage comes from: as much as the social pressures that configure the entire value of women on an index of sexual desirability, it is wrought by a carelessly callous father and her inability to cope with the recent death of her mother. Fleabag is a character whose self-abasement confirms her own worst expectations of herself and of everyone around her.
The text is written with toxic flair. The reason we – “forgive” is the wrong word, perhaps I mean “tolerate” – the protagonist is that she’s funny. The comedy depends on her reaching moments of acutely painful self-insight and then snapping back from contemplating her emotional devastation with a self-knowing, deprecatory quip: the laughter functions as relief from the relentless cruelty of the situation. In this play, respite is only temporary: Fleabag is drawn deeper and deeper into the undertow as her cycle of damage and self-damage amplifies with every wound.
Rice’s faultlessly modulated performance, directed by Vicky Jones, draws a pitiless reality in which everyone is so entirely broken and isolated that neither hope nor compassion is possible. The laughter it generates – and it is often funny – leaves a very bitter aftertaste. You can’t but admire the skill of the writing and its take-no-prisoners honesty: but it’s a comedy that, like Fleabag herself, turns on the acid wit of cynicism.
The television adaptation permits more space for every character and removes the play’s extremes of cruelty. Where the play is a short, vicious shot of poison, the series is a bitter but complex cocktail. For all their similarities, they seem to me to be portraits of two very different women. One is damaged almost beyond repair, a woman wholly incapable of empathy for herself or anyone else: she can’t even respond to the terrified cries of a dying animal. The other is a portrait of a woman deeply wounded by shame and guilt, who is nevertheless capable of compassion and insight.
The thing is, there’s a truth to both these possibilities, but one is much bleaker than the other. As a play, Fleabag is deeply uncomfortable comedy. Stripped of its laughter, it’s a picture of what’s left after the knives of misogyny flay open the female psyche. And that’s not funny at all. In fact, I’m not sure it should be funny; the extremities of female pain are routinely disguised as jokes. But that’s another question altogether.
Romeo is Not the Only Fruit, written and directed by Jean Tong. Set and costumes by James Lew, lighting by Rachel Lee, sound and composition by James Gales. Performed by Sasha Chong, Nisha Joseph, Margot Tanjutco, Pallavi Waghmode and Louisa Wall. MICF at Malthouse Theatre. Closed.
Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, directed and dramaturge by Vicky Jones. Design by Holly Pigott, sound design and composition by Isobel Waller-Bridge, lighting by Elliot Griggs. Performed by Maddie Rice. MICF. Presented by DryWrite, Soho Theatre and Malthouse Theatre. Until April 22. Bookings
Contains strong language and adult themes. To discuss potentially triggering content please contact Malthouse Theatre’s Box Office or speak with a member of staff.