There can be a lot of cynicism in the work of young performance makers. We 'youth of today' are a generation apparently defined by our cynicism. I would say more specifically that the 'short-works night' or cabaret format that has provided opportunities for many a young artist, also breeds a culture of comedy - dare I say cheap laughs? It was refreshing then to find a sincere engagement where I wasn't exactly expecting it; in the new work A Comedy from the four-member artistic collaboration Brown Council, whose previous works have often sardonically appropriated pop-culture phenomena. This work, developed through the Next Wave Festival 'Kickstart' program, candidly interrogated the comic devices of Brown Council, as they returned to themes of the desire to perform and entertain and the play of power between performers and audience.
Like many of the performance works in the Next Wave program,A Comedy demanded a participatory audience, complicit in its creation. A single line of chairs formed an intimate semi-circle that made the experience one of watching your fellow audience members as much as the performers, and leaving no escape from involvement. A coloured dunce hat was set on each seat for the audience to don, to match the ones Brown Council wore.
The idea of schadenfreude - enjoyment in other people's misery - came to my mind as Brown Council performed act after act with an accumulative impression of humiliation, failure, degradation and physical pain - all supposedly in the name of comedy. Kate Blackmore's 'trick' was to make a banana disappear. Without the cunning illusion of a magician but with all the bravado and foreboding of a sword swallower, she ate one banana. She then pulled another two from her pants and repeated the act. When attempting another three her nausea was palpable. Frances Barrett had to run out with a bucket as Blackmore gagged - masticated banana bubbling from her mouth.
The presence of tomatoes at the audiences' feet seemed from the offset to be an invitation to actively express our judgement on the night's entertainment. As the bad jokes and failed tricks rolled out, I was tempted to throw a tomato or two, but was also aware that this would implicate me further in the humiliation of these women. There was also my sense of the limits of audience participation - a reticence to act unless explicitly asked to do so. Sure enough, in the final act Kelly Doley's face was painted as a target and she was presented, bound by rope and kneeling, to the audience. Admittedly, I threw the first tomato. But if I hadn't someone else would have, I think. A barrage soon followed.
Are we horrible people? We had the power to end the humiliation and we decided to create its climax. Or were we lulled, powerless, by Brown Council's continuous self-deprecation into feeling that this was acceptable? While it was Brown Council that had tomato, banana, maybe tears on their faces, there remained an unsettling ambiguity over who bore the brunt of the joke - the performers, the audience, or the institution of comedy itself.
Brown Council are Frances Barrett, Kate Blackmore, Kelly Doley and Diana Smith. A Comedy -19-23 May, Traders Hall Carlton, as part of the 2010 Next Wave Festival
Megan Garrett-Jones makes performances - usually collaboratively, writes about performance - sometimes critically, and organises events with the collective Bake Sale for Art. She has been published in Realtime and now on Das 500, and writes regularly for bakesaleforart.blogspot.com.