One of my day jobs is at a theatre and venue for hire. The space is popular for weddings, and part of the job involves watching over the building and locking up at the end of the night. I’ve seen a lot of weddings now, cakes being cut, heard a lot of best man speeches, vows being spoken. Most receptions end their hire at midnight, so I need to bring the lights up as the (now drunk) guests dance to the final songs of the night. The hire is very expensive, and many of the guests and hirers are rude and entitled, act poorly, get very drunk and make a big mess. I don’t get very sentimental.
In The Guerrilla Museum’s new show All Of My Friends Were There, I got to have a similar experience but without getting paid for it. The night rotates audiences through a series of performances in different spaces that play on the theme of “birthday party”. In one moment, a wigged, uniformed facilitator blows a loud whistle to coordinate a game of Musical Chairs followed by Pass The Parcel, but with a live band. In another moment, sexy dancers dressed in white performed a choreographed sequence to a medley of party bangers, before encouraging us to dance with them and take shots of pineapple soda with a splash of Midori. In another moment, we wait in a waiting room. It’s all very exciting.
The primary conceit is that someone has been chosen at random to be given a birthday party. They are being given a very special (and ostensibly boozy) experience as the rest of us navigate the labyrinthine theatre-turned-pseudo-house-party and prepare for their arrival. Only, as we encounter increasingly elaborate materials – projections, printed posters, special guests – designed to illustrate this person’s life, we wonder how spontaneous or random this selection actually was. Moreover, we have no agency in navigating this process of party-making and really have no reason to care about the person, despite being told that we should. When the not-their-real-birthday person finally arrives, confetti cannons go off and a live band plays, but the whole charade feels hollow and insincere.
At moments I wondered if the event was supposed to be a cynical parody of heterosexual white Australian party culture, but there was no counterpoint offered to this bleak, homogenous, cheap idea of what a celebration should look like. The artists seemed interested in the dual significance of birthdays, their retrospective celebration of life even as they mark a step closer towards death. But this line of thought extended no further than a brief flirtation with ideas of mortality, a brief sidetrack from the unstoppable descent towards True-Blue drunkenness and sing-along sentimentality for the privileged of our society.
Aesthetically the work was overwrought and under-thought. With an expensive excess of lights, colours, spaces, videos, sounds, objects, and little to string these intense sensory experiences together besides some forced notion of ‘nostalgia’, it was hard not to want to retract from the fun. Our desire to engage and interact with the work was heavily assumed and structurally relied upon – those who struggle with meeting new people, touching strangers or dancing on command might find the work more nightmarish than pleasant, with little else critical to take away.
I’d also argue that the work borrows a lot from work being done in Melbourne by queer party organisers and producers, taking the structural innovations being done to combine music, dance, installation and other media into an experiential ritual celebration, but making it all-white, wheelchair inaccessible, and sexually inoffensive.
That this is occurring within the prestigious and expensively priced context of Melbourne’s international arts festival is disheartening. It’s not that the artists have nefarious interests, but simply that they are in the difficult position of having to navigate a large and complex institutional arts programming model and given a rare opportunity, they have chosen to do their best under less than ideal circumstances. In this case, fleshing out the initial concept has only shown that it was a little unspecific to begin with. I hope their future projects invest more in dramaturgy and a diverse creative team, and that they work at a more appropriate scale for their timeframe. For those already booked in I suggest they exploit the free wine and cake.
Update: When this review was initially published, it implied that the production had received project funding, and that the work had been commissioned, neither of which are true. The author would like to sincerely apologise for these misleading statements and assumptions. In the light of this information, the rating has been changed from 1.5 to 2.