Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA
November 6, 2018

Xenides is the first work that artistic director Clare Watson has produced from scratch for Black Swan State Theatre. Watson is an enthusiastic promotor of wistful comedy, often working with casts to develop a script, as is the case with Xenides. Named after the 1970s Australian game-show host Adriana Xenides, the production is however in large part about the characters portrayed by cast members Laila Bano Rind, Adriane Daff, Harriet Marshall, and Katherine Tonkin. Xenides’ biography principally provides a pretext to riff off themes of gender and femininity. The band consists of bassist Djuna Lee and drummer/percussionist Holly Norman, led by composer-performer Xani Kolac, forcefully establishing female authorship as the position from which the production speaks.

Katherine Tonkin, Harriet Marshall, Adriane Daff and Laila Bano Rind. Photo © Dana Weeks

Given this, I expected Xenides to be an energetic romp, a high-octane cabaret of both mourning (Xenides died at fifty-four) and celebration, punctuated by snappy numbers. To some extent this is what you get. The performers are adept, and Kolac’s music is remarkably complex and stylistically eclectic, especially in the first few compositions. The songs move between arty 1970s rock (think Roxy Music) to country (the cast’s rendition of Willie Nelson’s Crazy is a highlight), instrumental jazz-rock (think The Necks) and other forms. But Xenides is neither high-octane nor entirely cohesive.

Most of the material is pitched as light-hearted comedy on sad topics. Despite this, many sections are quite drawn out. One cast member has an amusing and deliberately distracting fight with a banana lounge while another delivers an interrupted but heartfelt monologue centre stage. After the chair has been set up, the play comes close to being a glam Waiting For Godot, with the cast seemingly driven to scrabble about for text and actions to fill the onstage void. Zoë Atkinson’s design consists of a wide set of stairs and platforms, but the gorgeous beige carpet is perhaps too seductive, encouraging the cast to recline across it, languidly gazing or snarking at each other. When a bag of chips is shared around as a reference to Xenides’ alleged eating disorders there is a distinct possibility for the production to resemble a TV slumber party, in which those assembled muse about their lives while intermittently turning to the ostensible purpose of their gathering, the televisual host.

Laila Bano Rind. Photo © Dana Weeks 

This of is course intended. While the often naff jokes and rather discontinuous style accords with a rich vein of comedic social commentary in Australian theatre (the Woolly Jumpers, Arena, Back to Back), Watson and her collaborators blend this with something closer to Forced Entertainment and other forms of so-called post-dramatic theatre, in which the play which the cast are ostensively staging never seems to quite get off the ground, repeatedly spluttering to life and then fizzing out. The audience is told that we are listening to true lies, stories which are not false but which have been reworked and mediated. Celebrity magazines are the principal sources (something which, as a professional historian, I found disappointing). The performance is therefore as much about celebrity as it is about gender, as much about putting on a role to please your fans, family and friends, as it is about locating an alleged “true self” lurking behind all of this. One leaves with a suspicion that perhaps there was never a complete self behind Xenides’ mask.

Xenides is therefore both thought provoking and entertaining. Highlights include Harriet Marshall’s striking rendition of a song from the opera Tosca (which comes as a bolt of lightning before immediately dissipating like a Surrealist programming glitch), Tonkin’s monologues about chance encounters with Xenides and coping with being a very tall woman. Both the audience and my partner hugely enjoyed the production. Personally though I found it too much of a shaggy dog, with too much material fundamentally unrelated to either Xenides or gender. With a bit of trimming and a more energetic, full-voiced realisation of the songs and the text, the piece would shine.

Xenides plays the Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA until November 11