Melbourne Fringe 2016

Wham Bam Thank You Slam, Melbourne Fringe 2016

0 Comments 04 October 2016

Words by Brianna Bullen

Ladies and gentlemen, tonight was the night for slammers, spectacle, and simulation. And more than a little silliness. In an event marketed as poets (verbally) slamming it out in boxing gloves, it would be disappointing if it wasn’t.

In the industrial setting of the perfectly-punny Second Story Studios, the audience sits around the centre ring waiting for some serious no holds barred word-wounding in a night entirely encompassing a WWE technicolour retro-grunge look.

And we keep waiting. The wait lasts almost an hour; the audience gets restless. I’m worrying about time, and the stress colours the experience. Finally, Grand Poobah Benjamin Soolah – decked in cape, face-paint, and subtlety-lacking red spandex pants – and referee Anthony O’Sullivan (why does a poetry slam need a ref? He questions. Aesthetics and added humour, of course) take the stage to introduce the night.

The first bout: tag-team poetry! The four poets, two per end, stare each other down. A classic ‘Weirdos vs Villains’ match:  One corner boasts a man in a costume that amounts to “thrift shop Riddler” (in the words of his opponents) who shrieks his lines, and his teammate plays an ocker, entering the stage in gumboots, singlet, and swag hat to Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, and begins every one of his turns with “If I were Australian of the year.” The ‘Villains’ have their own Australian bogan in the performed form of ‘Chazza,’ the sloppy, mascara stained feral, with more swag than her opponents hat, who “took a TAFE course in poetry. And FAILED/ took a course in heartbreak and got an A for angst.” Dynamite character.

Her substitute teammate has the stage name ‘Corporate Façade,’ and riles the audience with his capitalist ‘I’m better than you all’ spin.  It’s an unexpected sketch-show start to the night capturing the general mood—colourful excess sold through commitment to WWE and character. Yet the segment goes on for too long, the poetry is purposely bad, and it’s very repetitious, making for a destabilising opening given the wait.

The third match is a hectic performance, as Roshelle Fong versus herself, putting the ‘slam’ into the event. Fong, decked out as a violent Cinderella with a bullet-cased bandolier belt and intense shoulder pads, runs screaming into the audience, literally knocking me about for several seconds in my seat before getting onstage. It certainly is a jolt back into the uncanny aggression of everyday life, the performance a critique of modern dating that literally ends with simulated sex from behind on stage. Unpleasant, but certainly memorable.

The night’s highlight is the twelve-poet battle royale. Here, each poet has three minutes to perform before being scored by judges randomly selected from the audience. Most performances ran on their gimmicks and commitment to costumed character—aviators, ‘The Capitalist,’ a two-face-esque character arguing a poem with himself on stage—or concept—Lyme disease, the Eastlink tunnel, being born the wrong sex. In three minutes, most characters convince, through words but predominantly performance delivery.

My personal highlights place joint third and second: Elemental, who uses pauses, body languages and gestures to fill in words; Peachy, in Jessica Rabbit gear, tackling provocative language with delight: “I’ve already f*cked you/I can f*ck girls better than you,” and Rhea, who is subdued in the costume department but grasps hip hop and threw it at the audience, flowing from Frank Ocean through Beyoncé to Maya Angelou, with thematic ease. Taylor Swift’s “feminism dependent on pigmentation” is just one target among many deftly hit with lingering impact.

The only drawback of the night was a lacklustre handling of time and some occasionally sloppy slamming. But in a night based around being a spectacle with committed delivery, it succeeds in putting Melbourne spoken word on the map in a delight of style over substance and kitsch over class, with some surprising moments of truth and vulnerability.

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