Thursday, November 27, 2014

'The Libertine has Left the Building' at Mimetic Festival, 25th November 2014

About midway through The Libertine has Left the Building, Michael Twaits explains that the most terrifying affliction an artist can be struck with is happiness.  His example is Adele; a baby, a loving husband and fabulous riches have left her with precious little inspiration for heartbreaking music.  His argument is that personal turmoil is the crucial ingredient in producing wonderful art, and so, trapped in prison with the whole country hating him, Rolf Harris must be producing a series of utter masterpieces.

It's an astute observation and one that applies all too easily to Twaits himself.  At 33 he has a steady relationship, a well-regarded arts practice and (as he repeatedly reminds us) a mortgage.  Good for him.  He looks like he's earned a spot of domestic bliss.  Problem is, as with Adele, happiness hasn't left him with much to say.  

This results in a show that's a series of dislocated segments touching on things that Twaits is vaguely interested in.  We get an exploration of different styles of drag, a potted life history, a segue into philosophical mathematics, some ponderings on a painting, a lengthy poem and finally a "cabaroke" drag number.

Whatever he's doing Twaits is always a charismatic speaker.  He slides effortlessly from poignancy to irreverence, constantly making self-deprecating asides as he improvises his way through the loose material.  His personality is the main attraction; looking wholly confident in front of an audience and navigating his way through wordy material as nimbly as a mountain goat picking its way through dangerous crags.

But charisma can only carry him so far and doesn't come close to compensating for a weird absence of passion.  It's as if he's working from a memory of righteous indignation, trying to recapture what he used to feel so intensely but now slips through his fingers like mercury. What's left is a series of vaguely trivial jabs at the periphery of subjects.  For example he criticises the popularisation of drag terminology resulting from RuPaul's Drag Race, annoyed that now everyone knows what 'tucking' is.  This is extremely low-hanging fruit and has the whiff of a performer annoyed that what used to be underground are now mainstream.

The nadir is a lengthy poem about the miseries of being gay, in your 30s, well off and popular.  Moans include being expected to be constantly witty and dry, having women expect you to be their best friend and generally fitting into the proscribed heteronormative idea of what a gay man should be.  Granted these things must be deeply annoying (and fair enough they are symptoms of bigger problems) but as a subject for dramatic soliloquy it sounds unpleasantly like self-obsessed bourgeois whining.

It's as if having run out of issues that he really cares about, Twaits has settled into going through the motions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the slightly depressing climax in which he dons drag before our eyes.  He perfunctorily slaps on foundation, false eyelashes and lipgloss, explaining that he doesn't even need to put much effort into making it work. Then he sings through A Whole New World from The Little Mermaid and calls it a night. He even admits that he's ending the show this way because he can't think of anything else to do.

Maybe I'm a touch naive, but I'd like to imagine the process of getting into drag as a faintly magical transformation; an illustration of how apparently concrete things like personality, appearance and gender are pliable and plasticine. Twaits treats the process with as much passion as brushing his teeth.

If the Libertine really has left the building I wish he would come back.  What's left in his absence is an occasionally amusing but curiously hollow experience.

The Libertine has Left the Building is at Mimetic Festival on 27, 28 & 29 November 2014
Time: 9:40:pm.  Tickets available here.

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