The best thing about Midsumma Festival is the new queer writing that is on offer; audiences are entertained with theatre from young, upcoming artists that can be clever and bombastic. Sad Digger Mad Mary ticks both these boxes.
Clever in the way it addresses themes of isolation, fear of oneself and masculinity. Bombastic in the way it loudly delivers so many camp, cultural references tied up neatly with a springy pink ribbon.
Tom Halls crafts and performs a tale that addresses the clash between the standard, stereotypical received culture of what it is to be an aussie male and a man’s strength to be divergent from the norm, to be same-sex attracted and to have the ability to genuinely express emotion. He does this via the character of a sad digger and a guardian angel called Mad Mary Poppins.
We spend the sixty-minute duration of the piece in the company of a soldier fleeing the impending punishment from his army superiors for a major indiscretion he carried out with another man. But this digger is not MIA in continental Europe, but hides, in anguish, under his makeshift bark-hut shelter in the middle of an Australian desert with his red dog, man’s best friend, to keep him company. Cultural references collide, place and characters jar, but this all a part of this production’s charm.
From this premise, Halls throws himself in to depicting memorable characters; there is the narrator, Mad Mary, and the Digger himself. Halls is agile, charismatic and confident in all that he does on stage.
Halls has great fun parodying the practically perfect Mary Poppins when he unleashes her hidden thoughts and dark feelings that lurk beneath her veneer of respectability. Halls gives us a take on how we all present to the world the expected manner and approach to life whilst ignoring the genuine person of feeling within us. As the program notes state, this can be still a sad symptom of growing up gay when there is no support for a girl or a guy who has to constantly question, why am I different and not fitting in? How can a person situate themselves comfortably in relation to others when they are perhaps harbouring doubt about themselves or fear of being discovered as same-sex attracted?
Yvonne Virsik’s direction is spot on, utilising the La Mama Courthouse space effectively. She encourages Halls to use whole space and makes good use of levels on stage. Halls starts off in a cocoon-like, child’s pose at the top of the show; by the end, his posture is one of triumph standing tall arms outstretched. The music and sound effects by Anastassia Poppenberg propel the action forward and is always in keeping with the conversation going on between Halls’ characters. It was a lovely blend of dialogue, action and sound cues.
Halls is an excellent performer. He draws upon so many genres to entertain – slapstick, cabaret, dance, high camp and realism. His deconstruction of Mary Poppins was very funny. Halls’ reworking of Mary’s iconic stance with pointing her nanny brollie to the sky was a highlight.
One of the other main messages of the piece was to acknowledge those men and women who served in war and to address the attempt that has been made to erase their involvement – namely the indigenous Australians and the queer. It was a subtle but poignant message.
A dose of Brechtian theatre was thrown in to the production at the top of the show and towards the end. Halls politely takes over the usher’s role of doing the traditional La Mama raffle and uses placards to introduce the show. Later on he paused to take a rest and check in to see how the audience was following proceedings. It was an interesting decision, keeping us on our toes, guiding us to understand the contract between he and us. The contract whose binding promise is to entertain and explore some important ideas. Halls and the creative team certainly do this.