Some Australians reject rural and remote Australia as irrelevant to modern life, while others seem to hold onto a nostalgic view of the country as a rough and rugged pastoral wonderland no matter how urbane the populace becomes. The truth, as usual, is somewhere between the opposing perceptions.
It’s surprising, in this context, that a 1990s film focused on a group of drag queens bridged the gap between outback Australia and urban Australia, busting outback mythology while also humanising and endearing the queer community to the rest of the country.
By contrasting the glitz of drag with the rugged beauty of the continent’s interior, Priscilla positioned the urbane and somewhat vacuous queens of Sydbourne and Melney as quintessentially Australian. As Australian, if you like, as pubs, red sandy deserts and big red rocks.
Alana Valentine’s Ladies Day builds on Priscilla‘s success in bringing these diverse experiences of Australia together. The plot centres on the experience of Mike, who is invited to shake things up on Ladies Day at the Broome Races by gracing the catwalk in drag. And grace it he does. Wade Briggs, as Mike, is spectacular in pink, with precarious gold stilettos and a fascinator that lives up to its name. The motive behind this unusual invitation is his friend’s mission to build Broome’s economy through queer tourism by uniting businesses in a fledgling organisation called Pink Broome. Liam, complete with a broom he painted pink, is really the driving force behind the entire plot, and Matthew Backer, who plays him, is the core energy on stage. He makes it easy to suspend disbelief, and along with the rest of the cast he delivers Valentine’s impeccable dialogue with the sophistication of a seasoned performer.
It’s not only Valentine’s dialogue that positions this play well. The interspersing of acapella vocals and direct address monologues, all of which are integral to the developing narrative, weave a complex picture of Australia’s political and cultural millieux at this point in history. Valentine doesn’t shy away from presenting the horror of sexual abuse, and I found myself so deeply engaged in the story at one point that I almost found myself shouting from the auditorium. I did have my wits sufficiently about me to remember that I was in a theatre, and that these were actors and that I should stay in my seat and keep my mouth shut (though I’m not entirely sure these customs are universally appropriate in the theatre: Shakespeare would probably have felt a sense of failure if he saw how modern audiences respond (or fail to respond) to his work).
I am impressed, more than anything else, with Valentine’s positioning of her characters’ experiences. No experience has a higher value than any other. Straight characters can be as damaged by assault as queer. Melney and Sydbourne are as risky and as endearing as Broome. But what matters is how we grow, either from our experiences, or in spite of them.
While I have some reservations about plot decisions late in the play that risk confusing the core narrative, this is truly one of the most vital and engaging works I have seen on stage this century.