September 01, 1993

Icon Tactics

Look at Me When I’m Talking to You
Barry Humphries
Her Majesty’s

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Edna Everage may want our eye contact but it is her unmistakable voice that greets us first in Look at Me When I’m Talking to You. With bridesmaid Madge providing sign translation on a large video screen Edna gives some guidelines for live theatre. We have not been given remote control units because they will not work- this is not television, the actors on the stage are real. For best results look towards the curtain area at the far end.

We happily watched the curtain area for more than three hours while Humphries premiered his latest show, proving yet again that he is a burlesque entertainer without rival. The newness of the material is evident and Humphries’ rafts of words do not always seamlessly connect. But as he said, this is not television. It is an indication of his pre-eminence as a performer that the occasional first night hesitations come as a surprise. We expect nothing less than perfection because Barry Humphries so often supplies it.

Sir Les Patterson opened the proceedings. In his Sydney 2000 track suit he is on a fitness bender. He’s dry at last – toasting his successful battle against the turps with a glass of chardonnay. Sir Les has made many contributions to political and diplomatic life but his most distinguished to date is as Australia’s Number One Olympic Undercover Bagman. We didn’t think Sydney won on merit did we ? Sir Les has always been the hardest of Humphries’ characters to hack. The satire is rarely convincing, what truth it had has faded. It is no wonder that he can’t save the world. His Aristophanic trousers are the world’s oldest willy joke, the racism rankles and his mouthwatering diction soon palls. But his boasting, grossness and avuncular good humour are still engaging. When he asks- are you with me ? Well you sort of are.

Daryl Dalkeith is new. Fresh out of the slammer, he is the victim of a relentless vendetta against the entrepreneur. He is a visionary – like mates Skase and Bond, crucified for his beliefs. He deserves help from Amnesty International. Daryl’s back for lunch but the table is empty, the photos with Bondy and Hawke have been taken down, the service is decidedly cool. It is curious to see Humphries play a character closer to his own physical likeness and tapping material closer to the moment. But with John Clarke we get this kind of political comment microseconds after the event, sometimes even microseconds before. Humphries’ character writing is smart but safely generic. It is not just Daryl who’s been away too long.

Steaming to the front of the stage in his deco armchair comes the shade of Sandy Stone. The codger from Gallipoli Crescent is the ghost of Ashworld, Glen Iris’s brand new, Asian owned twenty four hour supermarket. Sandy is the man for whom things almost happened. His early monologues are comic masterpieces, Humphries’ brilliant evocations of the juiceless Australian suburbanite- living and partly living, the Melbourne version of Krapp’s last tape. Sandy’s litanies of brand names, his adumbrations of a life of habit have been transformed with time. Pungent satire of a stifling present has become purple nostalgia for a temps decidedly perdu.

Sandy remembers and remembers. Shops where they knew your name and on which shelf the stock was. Shopkeepers snapping parcel string with their fingers, wattle painted on the butcher’s window. Commerce has changed. Businesses close, their windows painted white – like the milky eyes of a dying pet, says Sandy with poignant relish.

The writing in the Sandy segment is Humphries’ most assured. Valda Clissold’s encounter with the caring professions, widow Beryl’s happy new life as a grief and loss counsellor. How did we manage before grief counsellors ? Sandy muses, I suppose we had to fall back on people we knew. It is canny writing but as in More Please, Humphries’ Sandy-like memoirs, Melbourne of the forties and fifties is a kind of Arnotts paradise. The city Ava Gardner once described as the right place to make a film about the end of the world, has become the inspiration for moral rearmament. Barry Humphries, dadaist nemesis to Glen Iris is now its fondest Boswell.

Barry Humphries once said that Edna Everage looks out over her audience with the eyes of Patrick White. When the lights went up on the audience after intermission a palpable terror gripped the front rows. I was already jumpy. My ticket in row F had been double booked. Was this some hideous Humphries portent. Others around me thought so. Several public notables relocated well clear of the piercing range of Edna. I’m what, these days, they call an icon she shrieks as she takes the stage, beading the audience like a hawk in a mouse plague.

Edna Everage is Humphries’ most rapidly mutating creation. As the montage of video images heralding her arrival remind us, Edna has long ceased to be a single social construct. Instead she is the vortex for all Humphries’ miscreant energy. Edna gathers personae, fads and buzzwords like lint. Her current breathless revelation: she was abused by her mother. She is also on the IVF program. And of course ER would like Edna to rid her of her turbulent republic.

Her ubiquity on television only serves to make Edna more astonishing on stage. Last time I saw her perform live was in 1973. She was wearing denim and smirking about people going to Mary Martins to buy Hermann Hesse. Twenty years on she is more unspeakably gaudy, veteran of transnational media and working crowds with greater zeal than ever. Penny and Helen are summoned on stage to sort a ton and half of Norm’s clothing while Edna rang an unsuspecting babysitter. Humphries’ detractors have hammered him for Edna’s antics, her postcode snobbery and humiliation of sisterhood. Not so In Look at Me While I’m Talking to You. Edna is almost benign, improvises brilliantly and a hostess you’d be glad to tremble for.

Humphries has created so much for others to build on it is hardly surprising that he is now often upstaged. He is, after all, old enough to be Edna’s brother. But at the curtain area of Her Majesty’s Barry Humphries passed his own acid test. He is still a nice night’s entertainment. I wanted to press rewind and see it all again.

The Adelaide Review, November, 1993.

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