Emilie Collyer on The Rise and Fall of St George at Midsumma Festival
I come to The Rise and Fall of St George from a place of unknowing. I know of Paul Mac but am not deeply familiar with his work. I know the work has something to do with George Michael, a mural and the 2017 Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey. Will it be a tribute to Michael? I think there is a community choir involved so I imagine sing-along versions of Faith.
Hamer Hall is buzzing – this massive venue seems to be about three quarters full, which is no small feat. There is a sense of occasion, of being here to share something important together. I see a lot of people I know and many more that I don’t. Next to me a woman sits alone. It’s the kind of gig where space is made for whoever needs to be there, in whatever way; one caveat being that Hamer Hall itself has a kind of exclusivity around it. It’s a venue for particular kinds of culture and for audiences of particular means.
This show is part of Midsumma Festival and I wonder if this fact has helped penetrate different pockets of the community and brought them in. Maybe people are here who wouldn’t normally step into the plush red carpet environment of this concert hall.
The house lights dim and a choir walks onto stage. There is no sense of costume design, rather people wearing their own clothes. Some bright and celebratory, some low key. Stage left are a number of chairs behind a few microphones, seating half a dozen soloists. The choir leader appears, followed by a man wearing a long white shirt. The audience cheers. He crosses the stage and sits at a grand piano and starts talking to us.
Unless I missed it, he does not introduce himself. This strikes me as a missed opportunity. It’s probably a given that most people, maybe every person, in the room knows who he is, but some may not. I feel like we need the anchoring of him telling us who he is.
The show unfolds over the next 60 minutes through a combination of spoken word and song. Mac tells us how he commissioned a mural of George Michael for a wall behind his Sydney home not long after the pop icon’s death. The small group of soloists deliver what sounds like verbatim text from people living in the area. We hear about “a Portugese widow, a Chinese family, hipsters, glamour dykes and party boys”. It portrays an eclectic neighbourhood whose inhabitants watch with enthusiasm as the mural appears.
‘I came to the show as an outsider: I’m not from the community for whom this piece was made. I’m conscious that my response, therefore, has limitations of insight. The main thing I take away is this: the importance of listening’
A rather lovely picture emerges of the symbolic roles George Michael has played, including his role as (as one of the song lyrics says) “the patron saint of parks at night”. It reminds me how he shone through the “disgrace” of being outed as gay. Other stories float back to me, such as Michael’s generosity and philanthropy. There is a song about a marriage proposal and one about the 11 months the mural was there and how much pleasure it gave such a vast array of people, before it was vandalised, repeatedly, in the wake of the YES results of the marriage survey.
It strikes me that the show has come about through a strange conglomeration of events. If the mural and the wall had not belonged to a music producer, songwriter and artist, the events of its existence and destruction may still have happened – but they wouldn’t have been translated into a piece of art.
The show itself has a strange flavour. It’s both idiosyncratic and communal. It is one man’s story, with Mac as narrator and protagonist. It’s also the story of a local community. We hear how people gathered after the first vandalism, to wash the white paint off, how they held a vigil and stake-out in the park in case the vandals returned, how they drank beer and ordered pizza and played George Michael songs.
Beyond that, it’s the wider story of the marriage survey and the terrible damage done to the LGBTQ+ community by this politically clumsy and short-sighted approach to what could (and should ) have been a simple amendment to the Marriage Act. It is a story about mob violence. Mac explains how he was doxxed by right wing hate groups, spawning the vandalism of the mural and an overwhelming social media pile on that included horrific threats of violence.
In a weird way, it’s also a story about democratic process, with all its flaws and failings. Mac and co-creator Lachlan Philpott give voice to some of those on the “No” side of the debate. Towards the end, a song called “We stand with Ben” captures the words of people who came out in support of one of the vandals (a man called Ben), whose argument with those protecting the mural is recorded and played as part of the show’s audio. It’s an interesting choice to include this: while there’s no doubt which side of the debate the show’s makers and performers are on, those voices are given due space and neither mocked nor derided.
Structurally and dramaturgically, the piece sits in odd territory. It’s a work of storytelling, embellished with verbatim text and songs. It speaks of and about community, and much of the text is drawn from the local community; but it is not performed by that community and wasn’t born from a community-led project. It’s a piece driven and created by Mac’s experience and his desire to tell this story. I don’t mind this slipperiness of form and style. Could it be more polished? Yes. Can I imagine it re-visioned with a stronger dramaturgical frame and in a different staging context? Absolutely. But the work has its own cohesive logic.
Hearing new music is always an experience of deep listening. There is nothing familiar to sing or bop along to, which isn’t to say some of the 10 or so songs performed throughout the show aren’t beautifully written or catchy. After the opening number I cottoned on that this wasn’t a tribute show, but rather a work of new compositions. Overall, it’s melancholic.
I attended the show with my partner, who said that he kept getting echoes of the bittersweet harmonies of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, and the emotional melodic lines of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s (arguably best) musical Jesus Christ Superstar. There’s certainly something epic in the sweep of the music. There’s no sing-along to Faith, but there is a final, haunting rendition of the song with lines where the queer community express their need to believe in hope for the future, and in their allies and themselves.
At one point the choir passes a microphone around and its members shout aggressive snippets of hate speech directed at the LGBTQ+ community. I wonder if that would have been more effective if they’d stated the words simply, letting the vitriol speak for itself. But I’m also aware that I’m not part of that community and perhaps there was something deeply important and cathartic in that decision, that moment, for the people on stage.
I wonder too about this work and its place in this festival and at this venue. On the one hand, it’s a perfect piece for Midsumma, as a deeply personal and ultimately celebratory work about queer icons and the lived reality of queer people. I could imagine it taking place within the community where the mural is, closer to where it all happened, and being incredibly powerful.
On the other hand, I think how wonderful it would be if a much wider audience was exposed to the work. One of the final sections of the piece references the percentage split of the marriage survey: 61.2 per cent “yes” and 38.8 per cent “no”. I think about that 38.8 per cent and whether hearing this story of pain, violence, community and celebration would tip any of them towards a re-think of that vote. Even within the 61.2 per cent, I imagine there are many straight people who have no idea of the level of abuse and attack that the queer community endures, a kind of silent majority who believe generically in equal rights, but who have never directly experienced such hatred.
Spending an hour in the company of Paul Mac, the incredible soloists and the community choir might awaken a sense of community spirit and activism among those who don’t necessarily have to act. It makes me think about the pending Religious Discrimination Bill and how urgent it is to oppose such a retrograde step. Australia (Survival / Invasion) Day takes place a few days after I see the show and prompts a similar urgency, the sense of a need to listen to First Nations people on what this day means for them.
I came to the show as an outsider: I’m not from the community for whom this piece was made. I’m conscious that my response, therefore, has limitations of insight. The main thing I take away is this: the importance of listening.
Giving time to each other, to listen and share, is so crucial. It can happen in a concert halls as part of a festival, but it doesn’t have to. The opportunity to be part of something bigger, to support those who face hatred or discrimination, is always there. Those of us fortunate to live with privilege within dominant political paradigms should never become complacent and never shy away. Maybe everyone we know has a story worthy of a 60 minute electro-pop opera.
The Rise and Fall of St George by Paul Mac and Lachlan Philpott, produced by Performing Lines, was presented at Arts Centre Melbourne in association with Midsumma Festival on January 23 and 24.