"Relatives/Friends/Victims", Safe Chamber
"One Was Vicious", Queenbitchery
First Site Program, Come Out Festival,
Lion Arts Theatre 29-31 March 1995

Reviewed by Amanda Finnis

In one night I witnessed a woman cutting off her nipples with a pair of scissors; a young man stripped naked and relentlessly hounded by people with taunting voices and flashlights until he became a gibbering, cowering mess on the floor; a woman dragged by her hair through a tunnel of people; a woman considering removing someone else's eyes with a knife; a middle-aged tap dancer performing without music and a variety of other strange events. I had been to the theatre.

Safe Chamber's "Relatives/Friends/ Victims" was a theatre piece that bordered on performance art. The show was presented as a series of images as opposed to being a linear scripted work, and as the title explains it shows us the Safe Chamber view of relationships, friendship and victimisation. The three concepts seemed to blur although what came through most forcefully is that everyone is a victim.

Even before the audience entered the performance area, Safe Chamber risked alienating those who had come to see them. In the foyer the members of Safe Chamber, all dressed in slips (and nothing else) selected a few audience members to become "special friends of Safe Chamber" for the evening. These "privileged" few were then marked on their foreheads with a red lipstick cross and ushered into the theatre one by one. They were asked to answer some questions which were recorded and later played back as part of the performance. The chosen special friends were isolated from the rest of the audience by being placed in a separate area. Strange friendship. Then the rest of the audience was shown in - again, one by one - whereupon they were ordered to form a circle. And then the ride commenced.

"Relatives/Friends/Victims" explores the frailty of human nature and some of the behaviours that demonstrate this frailty. The performers use their bodies to challenge, shock and perhaps even offend. One harrowing scene had the audience all facing outwards from the circle while two of the performers moved around the circle, invading the personal space of audience members and sobbing, whimpering, calling out for help. Their urgency increased until they were to all intents and purposes hysterical and often would actually clutch at and hug these strangers that were their audience. Looking for friendship? Or were these characters dealing with the aftermath of a victimisation?

In another scene a young woman is stripped naked and then re-dressed with clothes and accessories that had been on a mannequin. She is carried about as if she is a mannequin. The dresser is cheerful throughout and the young woman expressionless. Is the message here about the pressure to conform in our society? And to do so unquestioningly? And that we are all victims? I think so. All actors begin the show in white slips and one by one convert to red ones. Except one non-conformer. It does not necessarily appear that she has made an active choice - rather it is the others who don't allow her to join. Another victim.
The whole idea of vulnerability is demonstrated by the choice of costume: underwear. The next logical step to extend the vulnerability metaphor is to be totally naked. Safe Chamber often utilise nudity in their performances. This is still something that is able to shock or at the very least take people by surprise. The average theatre-going public is not yet sanguine about in-your-face nudity. And you don't get much more in-your-face than this. Intimate theatre to be sure. So why do they get their gear off with such frequency? Self-therapy? Self-examination? They claim not. Nudity removes the mask, strips back the actors to their essentials and therefore strengthens any message being delivered. In addition, while perhaps inducing uneasiness in viewers, it also acts to empower an audience. After all, they are safely encased in their clothing. Finally, Safe Chamber aim to de-sensitise the sexuality of nudity by presenting their theatre in a no-nonsense manner.

In the second show, Queenbitchery's black, cabaret-style examination of self-image, the message is more obviously stated. Quite simply, "One Was Vicious" tells us (or rather shouts to us) that we are all under incredible pressure to conform to a physical ideal and sadly, we do the most outrageous things to achieve this image. Our Mistress of Ceremonies is MC Vicious - a copybook sadist. With the assistance of her young hunky boy slave. Pet, she puts her other creatures through their paces. We have Spanky, a true Narcissus who believes himself perfect in every way; Scardinia, a self-mutilator and Obsessia who obsesses about the physical features of everyone else. She covets, by turn, one audience member's nose, another's eyes. In one chilling moment she coquettishly caresses an audience member's face with her knife because she thinks he has beautiful eyes. She murmurs "I wonder if they'll fit?" Perhaps she needs to have a heart-to-heart with the French artist Orlan, who has already drastically changed her image with plastic surgery in her ongoing artistic pursuit.

Knives and scissors feature heavily in "One Was Vicious". Scardinia at one point while telling us about her fixation on a sales assistant's breasts during a shopping spree, simultaneously hacks at her prosthetic breasts with an enormous pair of scissors. Later she covers her actual breasts with band-aids after being told in no uncertain terms by MC Vicious that they are "repulsive". This is brutal stuff.

In one version of the show, (I didn't see it) Spanky hacks off his penis (a dildo) with a pair of scissors.

All of this is set to music. Each of the characters does a little star turn then it's on with the gruesome and confronting show. Ironically we, the audience, find plenty to laugh at in these characters. They are surely caricatures - larger than life, cartoonish even. Aren't they?
But these are times of silicon breast implants, penis extension operations, coloured contact lenses, liposuction, dermabrasion, computer-enhanced photographs of supermodels ... the list goes on. We literally do submit our bodies to the most arduous physical trials in search of the elusive perfect body. When we aren't feverishly exercising or dieting we are hacking away at our very flesh. Queenbitchery shows us.

There is a current fascination with image manipulation and deliberately blurred sexual identities in the world of art. Witness the enhanced photographies of Pierre et Gilles, Orlan's experimentation with her canvas of living flesh, Linda Sproul's art inflicted-welts.
Both of these young Adelaide-based companies demonstrate what I'm talking about. Safe Chamber have both men and women running around in women's underwear, supposedly strong women characters who submit to actual physical manipulation, strong male characters who come apart at the seams with small provocation. Queenbitchery - amusingly, once falsely advertised as Queen Butchery - pull no punches with their hacking of body parts, their sadistic all-powerful woman MC, their fawning male slave, their outrageous make-up for all. The somewhat frightening aspect of this is the flashes of identification with their over-the-top characters, the "Oh my God, I've felt exactly like that" sort of thoughts engendered by their performances.

"Pretty, I feel pretty
I feel pretty and witty and bright."