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Madame Nightshade’s Poison Garden

Melinda Keyte

Seriously messed up comedy romp and circumstance.
Madame Nightshade’s Poison Garden

Image: Madame Nightshade’s Poison Garden. Supplied.

Created and performed by Anna Thomson for the Melbourne Fringe festival, Madame Nightshade’s Poison Garden, is a stunning piece of theatrical comedy. A wild, Marie Antoinette-Godzilla like princess gets all up in the audience’s grill almost from the get-go, after transforming from her alter ego Beatrice. Beatrice: a ‘mannish’ looking postwar WWIII Cabaret style refugee, stealthily emerges from a garbage bag into her dystopian brave new garden. Beatrice provides a cycle of narration and commentary on the highly gendered ways in which women are treated and perceived – that is, when she gets the chance to speak. The ‘she devils’ in this production are hilarious and they compete for top billing constantly.

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Thomson’s bouffons (French theatrical term for mockery); her clowns that is, escape their biological determinism. They are female characters who reverse typical gender roles and play with the exploitation of ultimate power and control. They whirly-gig us from contemporary politics and the real pain of earth’s global warming, to the corporeal (bodily) truths of being a woman – and human – that by contrast cannot be escaped. Thomson’s princess diva emerges to the aria ‘Casta Diva’ famously sung by opera’s tragic heroine, Maria Callas as Thomson dresses – in a reverse striptease – in a gigantic pink bouffant wig and a fairy dress complete with jewelled ballet flats. It’s an absurd and ritualised irony that reflects on the decaying myth of beauty.

Everything is turned upside down and topsy-turvy by the creative team who evoke the absurd world of Beckett’s Endgame or Alfred Jarry’s Ubu in this small but lusciously designed work by Lara Week. Acclaimed for her own performances as cabaret character, Yana Alana and playing Bobby in Susie Dee and Patricia Cornelius’s Green Room Award winning Shit for MTC, Sarah Ward directs this performance with an acute eye for the fantastic and phantasmagorical. Japanese Noh (a kind of opera) and Butoh (post WWII dance theatre) were also styles that came to mind as I watched Madame Nightshade’s Poison Garden but there are many eclectic popular culture references too. The lighting design by Megz Evans provided controlled emphasis and contrasts, and the sound production and design by Jacky T was crisp, comical and suitably broad. The manipulation of the fairytale Snow White soundscape was excellent.

Thomson is the very essence of a clever clown. Her death stares, maniacal giggles, judicious use of foul language, grotesque body movements and deft ability to alter her shape – fake tits and arse made out of specifically chosen food stuffs attached to a ludicrous spotted bikini for example – turns the Benny Hill aspects of this seemingly pointless scatological humour into a form of re-contextualised gender parody. In one episode she has the audience sing ‘Wouldn’t It be loverly’ from My Fair Lady while she poops repeatedly into her holiday deckchair, and then gives the audience the poo – mini Mars Bars – all while lamenting in a demented quivering voice that she doesn’t flush the toilet. That’s not very ladylike is it? She also pops cans of rice pudding like they’re VB’s (Victoria Bitter) replete with appropriations of male skulduggery and exaggerated pub culture posturing.

There were a few meandering moments early on in the show when I thought Thomson’s comic timing could have been swifter. It can be hard for a performer to judge the reception of the offerings being made and there were some brief delays in the construction of the illusory world. It took a while for some audience members to warm up to her character’s mania but it didn’t last long.

I found Thomson’s Nightshade equal parts delightful, disgusting, revolting, provocative and confronting. All that mad muck and filth and cray cray activity she revels in is balanced with intuitive skill as she gradually invites the audience to participate and collude in her creation. She is effectively a giant child at play, and it’s delightful to experience her joy in performance. And like a child she eats, spews, shits, vomits, curses, and then coils her way around your heart before slugging you with a rude insult, a slap, or full pelt body-slamming tantrum. As one part of comedy troupe PO PO MO CO, you can also catch her award winning ensemble work.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Madame Nightshade’s Poison Garden
Creator and Performer: Anna Thomson
Director: Sarah Ward
Dramaturgy and Co-Direction: Jaye Hayes
Co-devising: (La Mama ExExplorations 2016) Kimberley Twiner
Design and Scenic Art: Lara Week
Lighting Design: Megz Evans
Sound Design: Jacky T
Stage Manager: Lisa Inman
La Mama, Level 1, 205 Faraday Street , Carlton
21 September -1 October
Melbourne Fringe Festival

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Melinda Keyte

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