Ishtar Madigan has taken to sleeping in her office, in the adjoining copier room to be exact. She’s been hounded there by a legion of online trolls, Reddit bros and incels, subject to their relentless doxing. Her crime? Besides daring to be a woman online, she’s also a feminist academic whose area of study is video games, “literally the most hated creature on the earth”.
Amber McMahon and Michelle Lim Davidson. Photo © Prudence Upton
Her hideout is one day invaded by Jake Newhouse, who promises her a princely sum if she’ll only agree to teach him, in a feminist way, how to “land” a librarian called Anne. All his usual tricks, straight out of the pickup artist’s playbook, have failed. Women have caught on to The Game, he laments. Little does Ishtar know that Jake also goes by Guy DeWitt, a misogynistic dating guru and host of a seduction community podcast called Santa Claus … Is Coming! He’s also the man responsible for her reduced circumstances, having sued her for defamation which she settled outside of court. Though she’s repulsed by Jake’s proposal, Ishtar eventually caves.
TJ Power. Photo © Prudence Upton
This is the premise of Van Badham’s new play Banging Denmark, developed as part of Sydney Theatre Company’s Rough Drafts program and receiving its premiere in a production by Resident Director Jessica Arthur. A tightly crafted comedy about the world of pickup artistry, what surprises most is the compassion Badham demonstrates in her rendering of Newhouse/DeWitt and his followers. While careful to expose the sexism and fallacious thinking that underpins their seduction strategies, the playwright is also at pains to demonstrate that these PUAs are fundamentally lonely people. It’s by no means a new or radical message, but it is realised with a sincerity that builds to an unexpectedly moving conclusion.
Much to its advantage, the play’s scope is wider than that, also taking in the messiness of young people’s sexual and romantic lives. It offers an alternative (read: healthier) model of romance through a secondary storyline concerning Ishtar’s friends, Denyse and Toby, presenting male vulnerability as no bad thing and emotional openness as key to any successful relationship. It also holds up friendship as a state eminently worth aspiring to, in ways both big and small.
Megan Wilding and Patrick Jhanur. Photo © Prudence Upton
That’s not to say Banging Denmark is without flaws, however. The five characters are underdeveloped, with Anne in particular thinly sketched. If intentional, it’s a bit of a cheat for Badham to have her function as a critique of empty male fantasies when the playwright doesn’t then take the time to flesh the character out any further. Denyse is also tritely characterised, and there’s a spell-it-all-out quality to the way her storyline resolves. Furthermore, the play is also slow to take off, the opening scene depicting Guy DeWitt recording his podcast low on laughs and energy despite the best efforts of actor TJ Power.
TJ Power and Amber McMahon. Photo © Prudence Upton
Banging Denmark ultimately succeeds as an experience thanks to Badham’s crackingly funny dialogue, and the insight into the web’s seamy underside that she’s able to provide as a feminist critic with her own experience of trolling. The cast is a strong one, with Amber McMahon fantastic as Ishtar. You feel her deliver Badham’s best lines with the glee of someone sitting down to a great meal, and she’s careful to show the toll Ishtar’s activism has taken underneath the droll, confident exterior. Power is similarly engaging as Jake, somehow getting the audience onside despite the character’s grubbier sentiments. As Denyse and Toby, Megan Wilding and Patrick Jhanur provide invaluable support, especially Wilding, whose gift for comedy is formidable. And although she’s not given much to do as Anne, Michelle Lim Davidson is as committed as always.
Jessica Arthur’s production, designed by Renée Mulder with lighting by Veronique Benett and sound design by Clemence Williams, keeps things moving at a nice pace. She has a good sense of the precise rhythms required for a work like this one, and her staging is full of subtle touches that enhance rather than overegg the comedy.