Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, 28 Nov. 2013
Words by Zenobia Frost
We settle in for The Dark Party up the back, led by the (unfounded, it turns out) sensation that the front row might be a dangerous place. After all, I’d watched journalist Dan Nancarrow have an apple chainsawed off his face for Brisbane Times — and would prefer not to follow in his footsteps. The Dirty Brothers (Shep Huntly, The Great Gordo Gamsby and Pat Bath), three “hobo clowns”, are already shuffling into the audience, distributing ping-pong balls. No explanation is given; in fact, The Dirty Brothers will remain silent, except for their occasional stifled cries. For the next hour, we will squirm, squeal and laugh as they injure themselves in the name of circus.
If I ask you to imagine three men dancing over dozens of mousetraps, you might picture chaos. But the Brothers’ triumph is in their deftly controlled performance — perfectly dishevelled, these three are masters of clowning. Their distinct characters, in monochrome clown makeup, simultaneously capture melancholy, mischief and horror. There’s choreographed elegance in their drunken shambling, lit by sepia spotlights. I couldn’t help but imagine Martin Martini’s Bone Palace Orchestra providing a live soundtrack.
It’s hard to describe The Dark Party without spoiling all the surprises. The Brothers play with staples, bear traps, electricity and fire with a jaded sense of self-destruction. These acts are for their amusement, yes, but they’re reproachful as well; we feel sympathy for the one being hurt, whether by himself, his brothers or the world at large. They draw the uncanny out of everyday activities — one’s morning ablutions and the act of putting on a coat are made strange, perhaps because they are so irrelevant to the world these ruined clowns occupy. My +1 observes, as well, several well-placed tips of the hat to Waiting for Godot (which I’ve not seen to confirm) — “as if,” she says after the show, “Vladimir and Estragon had finally given up on waiting and instead had resigned themselves to setting each other on fire for entertainment.”
I’m endlessly glad that the Judith Wright Centre, with its adaptable performance spaces, continues to support concise or unusual acts that might otherwise be relegated to sideshows and fringe festivals. Cunning segues ensure that The Dark Party — only an hour long — is more than the sum of its parts; it deserves time to be a headliner in its own right.
The ping-pong balls return in a wonderful gag that relies on the audience to participate in the Brothers’ denigration. Their violence is effective not because they make it look easy, but the opposite: their reluctance, their silence and their pain are intrinsic to the act.