No respectable arts festival is without its fringe, the open-access event that launches a thousand independent ventures.
Brisbane’s official fringe was last month, but the festival also offers a mini fringe event in Theatre Republic, which curates a captain’s pick of indie shows.
Housed in the Queensland University of Technology’s Creative Precinct, next to La Boite Theatre, it is a slightly odd experience: a strings of lights, art projections and carefully distressed picket fences create a designer vision of inner-city grunge parachuted into the spotless architecture of the university.
But it boasts an excellent selection of the best independent work from around the country and further afield — to pick a few, MKA’s Richard II, Attic Erratic’s The City They Burned, or from Singapore, The Necessary’s Stage’s Best Of.
And it gave me a chance to catch up at last with Adrienne Truscott’s acclaimed Asking For It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else.
Of all the stereotypes of feminists bandied about — the hairy legs (often very guilty), the man-hating (#notallmen) — the one about feminist humourlessness puzzles me most.
Sure, feminists tend to find things like family violence, pay disparity and intimate partner murder distinctly unfunny. And of course there are feminists who do not have a funny bone in their bodies.
But compared to the number of men’s rights activists who appear to have had an irony bypass at birth — by definition, all of them — they are a distinct minority.
In my experience, feminist women are very funny indeed. Since 1600, when the Venetian poet Moderata Fonte asked in disbelief why anybody would believe anything male historians said about men or women since men “never tell the truth, except by accident”, wit has been a significant part of a woman’s armoury against sexism.
Adrienne Truscott, half of the cabaret duo Wau Wau Sisters, is no exception. From the moment she first appears, naked from the waist down, in three improbably blonde wigs, denim jacket and high heels, her daffy persona is planting comedic depth charges.
This is a show that takes no prisoners, and yet, at the same time, it’s curiously gentle.
As the title indicates, Truscott is talking about rape. She begins brashly: “Hands up anyone who has been raped!” Of course, despite the statistical likelihood that there will be women who have been sexually assaulted in the audience, no-one stirs. “Ok. Hands up anyone who has raped!” Again, the statistical likelihood is that the audience would include a rapist. But this time the question has knives.
As the American humorist Erma Bombeck once observed, “There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain”. A lot of women’s humour emerges from the anguish of sexual violence, both overt and covert. The pain of women has very often been erased from comedy, where women in a heavily male-dominated industry have been the traditional object, not the subject, of jokes. Think of the endless punchlines about mother-in-laws, nagging wives, dumb blondes. And nowhere is this more clear than in the debate around rape jokes.
Truscott’s show circles around the debate that occurred when US comedian Daniel Tosh “joked” how hilarious it would be if a women audience member who objected to his comedy were gang-raped by five men “right now”. The subsequent furore shaped the debate as humourless PC feminists seeking to censor the free speech of comedians.
But, as Truscott argues in this show, this is the wrong framing. Of course a large part of comedy is crucially about trampling on taboos: but the defining aspect of comedy is that it is funny. It is supposed to touch the sweet spot in our anxieties and release as actual laughter.
And maybe, just maybe, it is not that edgy or transgressive to echo the misogyny embraced by politicians such as Republican Todd Akin, who notoriously claimed women do not get pregnant if they are “legitimately raped” because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” (Like ducks, apparently).
The most telling aspect of Tosh’s joke is that it is not remotely funny. Nor, if the YouTube videos I’ve watched of Tosh’s “edgy” humour are anything to go by, are the rape jokes that prompted the woman’s objections. The debate about rape jokes might be more accurately characterised as an argument about lazily using offensive stereotypes for cheap shock value. And something more sinister: the tacit acceptance of sexual violence against women.
Truscott has a sequence where she imagines raping a man after slipping him a drug (“Such hard work, you guys!”) which is equal parts hilarious and horrifying, and which illustrates the brutal transgression and erasure of rape as effectively as anything I’ve seen. The men next to me were shifting a little uncomfortably, but women were in stitches. Maybe the projection of this act onto a male body by a woman was too outrageous; maybe it brought home what those anodyne words “date rape” might actually mean.
But it is all done, paradoxically, with the lightest of touches. Truscott’s faux-naive persona lets her get away with the most outrageous of transgressions: she’s an entirely likeable stage presence. And she’s funny because she’s reaching into actual pain, opening it up so we can laugh, rather than using comedy as a means to anaesthetise ourselves against it. Maybe it’s not, as Truscott says, the ideal show for a first date, but it’s the kind of show you wish everyone could see. Especially men.
Asking For It runs until September 12, Theatre Republic is on at Brisbane Festival September 8-26 at QUT Creative Industries Precinct.