When: 31 January - 5 February
Where: Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne
Performed by: Ursula Martinez
Free Admission is a solo show which is not stand up nor burlesque although these provenances are evident throughout. I guess in drama school it would be called a dramatic monologue, but I prefer to think of it as one of the most complex and dynamic pieces of theatre I have seen in a while and you can see it too right now at the Fairfax Studio.
Sometimes I like to go to the theatre. Sometimes I see shows which are okay. Sometimes I see shows which blow my mind. Free Admission is one of those shows.
Ursula Martinez calls herself a performance artist. She has a strong background in burlesque and is known for creating work which has alternatively been called brilliant and disgusting. You know it is good when it evokes such strong reactions on either side of the spectrum. You know it has a message and you know people are feeling it.
Martinez is also an accomplished actor and in particular spent time working with the now iconic and possibly most influential modern company Forced Entertainment. This is significant information because the influences of duration and ordinariness are the hinges on which this performance swings.
Much has been said in reviews about the commentary Martinez makes on the theatrical fourth wall by building a wall between herself and the audience. People have also commented on the counterpoint of gradually being hidden by the wall as more and more of her personal experiences and observations - her inner self - are revealed to the audience.
What seems to have been missed is the framing of the work within the mundanity of a repetitive and somewhat physical activity which acts like a harmony to the story and story telling. The moments of pause in the building process act like accents and help the audience understand what is important and when to listen. The slight interuptions to Martinez's breathing as her arms tire and she has to lift the bricks higher and reach further to wipe off the extra cement create a subtle tension which help build the momentum in the narrative. Free Admission is a masterpiece of dramaturgical construction.
Martinez begins her story in the 70's as a child in school where playground songs were the teaching ground for intolerance and social stigma. Martinez is from the UK so I didn't recognise the songs. They began as just a little bit cheeky which made us laugh, but true to the format of the entire show Martinez escalates to songs which are so overt the audience is left in complete silence, paralyzed by modern social conscience and perhaps a touch of guilt. I certainly got to thinking about the version of 'Eeny Meeny Miney Mo' I used to use at school...
Martinez keeps the tone on the light side for the first half of Free Admission, although never shying from the extremes of the spectrum she is observing at any point in time. The melodic structure of the show is that of a lullaby. It is soothing and repetitive with almost every phrase beginning with 'Sometimes I...'. This combined with the repetitive actions of the wall building lull us into a calmness even as the material becomes more and more angry and pointed.
Martinez takes some time to talk about her dead father and her living Spanish mother. She talks about her mum's experience as a three year old growing up in the midst of the Spanish Civil War where the difference between life and death is knowing whether to salute with your palm stretched or fist clenched. She investigates the idea that her dad might still be alive if the National Health services were better. She talks about the way women are spoken to and commented on and ordered about. The show is very funny, but it is also a show which silences the audience more effectively than anything I have ever seen before.
Interestingly there are times she comes out from the wall and true to her burlesque heritage there is nudity. I have never really been able to resolve the social commentary of the nude female body on stage so I shan't try and make any meaning from it. It is perhaps enough that it engendered the confusion at all. I did find myself asking one of my other personalities whether, if this show was done by a man, nudity would have been required or if I would have reacted differently. I don't know. It is just good that I was put in a position where I had to ask myself this question.
Sometimes I see shows that are funny. Sometimes I see shows which are sad. Sometimes I see shows which make me angry. Sometime I see shows which remind me that theatre is essential to society. Free Admission is essential to our society. It has to be said. It has to be seen. It has to be sensed.