Monday, January 16, 2006


It can be difficult sometimes to keep track of what constitutes highbrow and lowbrow. On the one hand, it is possible to become so highly refined and elevated that things become lowbrow merely by virtue of the fact that Jerry Bruckheimer has heard of them. On the other hand, it is possible to become so vulgar and debased that you consider wearing shoes to be a snobby affectation.

I’m grateful, therefore, to the person who invented the term ‘middlebrow’, which helps to create a pivot point between low and high. If you want some examples from this part of the cultural spectrum; il Divo is middlebrow. Swooning over Mr Darcy (as played by Colin Firth) is middlebrow. Going to a Three Tenors concert is middlebrow. Joining a book club is middlebrow. And doing what I did on Saturday night – attending Shakespeare in the Park – is about as middlebrow as it is possible to get.

It was The Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies. It’s a logical choice; after all, no one wants to see Richard III or Coriolanus on a pleasant summer evening, having just glutted oneself on brie and chardonnay. One wants amusing misunderstanding, pratfalls and madcap schemes. Put simply, one wants, if it is at all possible, When William Met Sally.

The show started with an “acknowledgment” of the Noongar people who used to live in the area, which appears to be quite the wank du jour amongst the enlightened classes. Personally I think it’s the racial equivalent of thinking yourself virtuous for giving your cleaning lady a $20 bonus at Christmas, and wish the patronising dickwads would hurry up and get over it. But that’s probably just me.

After that, it was an amusing enough show. You can’t ruin Shakespeare, but as the Deckchair Theatre demonstrated, you can bang out a fairly ham-fisted rendition of it. I wondered what the Noongar-worshipping thespians thought of their contented, picnic-stuffed, middle-class audience, as they raced through the script as if there was somewhere they all needed to be by 10.30pm. The actor playing Sir Toby Belch, ironically last seen doing anti drink-driving TV commercials for the state government, seemed to pay a little more attention to his plum role, but even then, when he played up his asides and ad libs to the audience, he directed them at the corporate seats, where sat executives and guests of the theatre company’s sponsors. Like Sir Toby, he knew the source of his daily bread and wine.

Besides attracting an audience whom you believe to be bovine suburbanites, there are other risks when performing outdoors. The acoustics aren’t very good, leaves blow onto the stage, and there’s always a danger of kamikaze kookaburras. However, that doesn’t excuse telegraphing jokes and overacting like you’re auditioning for a guest spot on a bad British sitcom. There were some nice touches, such as the initial shipwreck being represented by a picture of an ocean liner slowly falling off a wall like a two-dimensional Titanic, but they tended to be lost in the overall mood of, well, sleaze. And there was plenty of sleaze.

Like all of Shakespeare’s comedies, Twelfth Night can easily be played as a bawdy farce, but these people seemed intent on making it into a smutty teen sex comedy, complete with a whip-cracking leather queen who could have been a live action version of South Park’s Mr Slave. Ha ha ha, there’s a gay oral sex visual gag! Ho ho ho, there’s a masturbation joke! Hee hee hee, Malvolio is wearing bondage gear and undergoing prison rape! Ooh, such saucy fun!

Bawdiness is finding robust humour in the inherently ridiculous aspects of sex. Smuttiness is sniggering at something you think you shouldn’t. There’s a difference, people. Having seen this version of Twelfth Night, I’m uncomfortably reminded of this article on the pornification of public space.


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