Writer, performer and ‘limbo champion’ Ash Flanders will premiere his new cabaret work, S.S. Metaphor from 5 December. Created specifically for Malthouse Outdoor Stage, the work is a glittering ode to freedom, adventure and endless possibility.

Directed by Sarah Giles, it will see Flanders bring fellow cast members Zenya Carmellotti, Will Conyers and Natalie Gamsu down to his level in a medley of maritime mayhem aboard luxury cruise liner, the S.S. Metaphor.

Promising to be nothing less than a fantastic romp that began for Giles when  Malthouse approached her to come on board. “The conversation initially began between Ash and Matt Lutton early on and I came on board shortly after, ” explains Giles. ” The three of us thrashed around a lot of ideas – but when I came on board the piece was ostensibly written – we had a few developments and continued to tinker and refine as we went along.”

Giles credits Flanders with rolling a very complex series of ideas, provocations and questions into a completely insane theatre glitter ball – complete with political cabaret / farce / adventure high stakes drama / good and bad songs and high energy insanity. “I think this show does what great theatre should do – asks big hard questions while making us both laugh and think about things in a completely new way,” she says.

Giles’ happy meet with Flanders happened MANY MANY years ago and was initiated through the ‘lovely’  Declan Greene( Flanders’ Sisters Grim partner). “I’m gonna guess the early 2000’s????  I met Declan at Melbourne Uni (where I directed him in a The Real Inspector Hound and Black Comedy in, God, I’m going to say 2002? ) and I think shortly after Declan met Ash and they started making shows together. This was all around the glory days of Union House Theatre when the brilliant Susie Dee was running the place and bringing lots of really excellent people together. ”

Giles is an eager Flanders fan having seen lots of Sisters Grimm’s shows over the years as well as seeing Flanders’ solo shows and lots of his work with the wonderful Stephen Nicolazzo too. She’s of it.  And similarly, Flanders has seen lots of her work over the years. Her early independent work, her work up in Sydney and more recently Opera stuff. “And I’m gonna say, he loved my work -Hey, he’s not here to disagree with me,” she quips. “We’ve watched each others work and enjoyed it – been thrilled for each other over the years – and managed to keep sane during the process.  We’ve often found ourselves sitting around tables saying “ why haven’t we worked together yet” but it has mostly been due to fiercely busy schedules not aligning – which is why when the pandemic obliterated our schedules and they became wide open AND VERY MELBOURNE BASED the very lovely Matthew Lutton put us together on this show. (The closest Ash and I ever got to working together prior to this one was probably when Ash ran my fundraising bingo night at the glasshouse in Collingwood for an independent production of Genet’s The Maids at La Mama. He was brilliant of course. I think we made $400. Which, from memory, was the ENTIRE set budget.)”

Flanders and Greene once described themselves as ‘two trash-talking homos on a kamikaze mission to take out Australian theatre’. I wondered what it would be like for Giles to direct a performer with that kind of chutzpah – what does he bring to a rehearsal room that others may not?

“I couldn’t help myself – I simply had to ask Ash about this quote, ” says Giles. “He pointed out that now he is 40 he has calmed down significantly. I beg to disagree.  Ash has an energy that is both intoxicating and terrifying – he doesn’t seem to get tired or ever run out of ideas and laughter. He is very open and says yes to all good insane ideas. I did just spend the afternoon rehearsing a particularly exhausting sequence with Ash – who did not complain once about the heat, the relentlessness of the whole process and who managed to come up with great offer after great offer despite the rehearsal room being damn hot and it being 4.45pm.  I think that is the main thing – he never seems to run out of ideas or offers. The major issues is that he has so many good offers you’re spoilt for choice in terms of shaping the work. I find with him, I’ll keep about 2 or 3 versions of any given moment floating as a possibility – I want THEM ALL. ”

The show explores idea of class, of collectivizing for the greater good, of the negative impacts that our obsession with self and “the individual” is having on our society and on the planet. The energy is chaotic, bleak , funny, raucous, silly, smart.     Audiences should expect to be surprised. ” I don’t really know what techniques we are using to highlight any of this – I think we might be using the age old technique of trying to make each other laugh as much as possible? I’ve fallen over several times during rehearsals due to laughter,” says Giles. In fact, Giles describes a moment that she considers the most challenging thus far in the rehearsal room  as the moment when she is trying not wet her pants while Flanders does some seriously exhausting choreography. “I’d say more, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise.”

As a director, Giles admits that humour and oddity are her go to on most fronts.  “I like the maths of it, I like the precision of it,” she says. “I like work that shows us the oddballs and the weird ones.  I like things that have something to say – that elevate a historically ignored perspective or offer a different perspective on a problem or idea – I like a show that asks an audience to engage with an idea in a new way – but does so in a way that is both entertaining and amusing.”

The arts has had a time tough over the last two years but there are many lenses to examine and evaluate personal experiences. “At the beginning of these lockdowns I had a 2 year old and a 4 year old,” says Giles. “I now have a nearly 4 year old and 6 year old. So my lockdowns were very straight forward and exhausting – in truth I had never been so busy as I was during those lockdowns. The general vibe was keep kids alive, try not to lose mind. I’ve quit drinking entirely as a result. I didn’t have a period of great artistic development during the pandemic, I didn’t sit around dreaming up new shows, in fact, I found it so impossible to do anything other than keep home life ticking along that the only way Ash and I could talk about SS Metaphor was if I slung the kids to my partner (who at the time had a very demanding full time job) and we’d go for a socially distant walk around the botanical gardens. Ash was very understanding about how limited my availability was during lockdowns”

Like every artists’ in the country many projects fell over for Giles – one of her favourite shows she’s made to date, No Pay No Way (adapted by the one and only Marieke Hardyat STC had to shut mid season at the Opera House in Sydney  -her Victorian Opera show, Lorelei, was postponed (they were very fortunate that they did get to put it on at the Palais in St Kilda in June and take it up to Brisbane with Opera Queensland) Giles had to pull out of a Belvoir show and her MTC show, The Truth, in the middle of the year suffered a strange fate of not really getting to open properly or close – it was flanked by lockdowns …. and had a weird week of previews where they performed to 75 people per night But then, she says,  other projects opened up too;  Giles is directing a new production of La Traviata for Opera Queensland, West Australian Opera and South Australian Opera next year which she’s really excited about.

In terms of the rehearsal room, Covid has really made Giles care less about failure – which she thinks is an excellent thing! “I think if the work isn’t risking something, you’re bound to make some truly boring theatre,” she says. “You feel significantly braver after sitting around for 2 years picking toys up off the floor.  You stop asking – “is that idea good?” and instead “could that idea be sillier – dumber – more pointed?” and if it makes you laugh you just say yes and plough ahead. Which is good – we’ve got a very short rehearsal period. The whole cast are dreamboats. Idiots of the highest order (which is a great compliment in my mind.) Endless offers – bravery – insanity – the tone of the room has been sort of “work hard – play hard”. The design team have been brilliant idiots too – Jed Palmer is also an idiot of the highest order and if he is laughing you know we’re onto a good thing. Tyler Ray Hawkins is absolutely setting the tone for insanity and silliness to ensue and his work is perfection. The inimitable Katie Sfetkidis, our lighting designer, is probably laughing the least, given she is facing a very particular challenge of teching a show in DAYLIGHT which doesn’t really work because, well, DAYLIGHT. In order to tech this show she’s doing some very complicated things with computers, that I don’t fully understand despite pretending to.”

So how does Giles entice an audience to invest their dollars on the good ship Metaphor? ” It’s funny. It’s got good and funny singing in it. There are bad wigs. You can eat pizza while watching the show and have a drink and put your elbows on the table (we don’t mind.) It’s outside. You can hug your friends while you watch the show. Hell, you can fart loudly and NO ONE WILL HEAR YOU. There is no serious dancing. There’s flitter. A fire extinguisher. A Disney character. You’ll walk away having a bloody interesting conversation with the people you came with. What’s not to love.”

S.S. Metaphor is a glittering ode to freedom, adventure and endless possibility, this ship might be stuck at sea, but the top tier passengers will be none the wiser about troubles back home… or even below deck

December 5 – 19


Images: Pia Johnson