Monday, 6 July 2009

Shame, Shame, Shame, Shame on You: 12 glorious years of Gay Shame

Femme fatale: Lois Weaver as Mother, Hitchcock Handbags, 4 July 2009

The evening offered boob jobs, breast-feeding workshops and a cure centre – modeled very much on the theatre of derangement offered by neurologist Jean-Marie Charcot at the Salpêtrière in the 1870s – for hysterical symptoms. Another shopfront – Mummy's Little Helper – dragged its participants into its precincts and, via vodka bottles, hormonal spots and the like, displayed the wounds of femininity to all who cared to look. Nasty, yes; brutal, yes; and well worth the 32 Green Shield stamps I paid for my exegesis. Elsewhere, there were some demented care bears (bears, in the gay sense, that is) who, in the course of their Girly, Sissy-Play Party, immured the bodies of their subjects in boxes before practising extreme make-overs on their heads poking out from the top of the boxes. This was a cross between unwilling Winnies (à la Beckett) and those hideous disembodied heads, marketed to young girls as make-up toys. It will never be possible to pass a make-up stand in Selfridges again and this was the whole point. All in all, Duckie's latest Gay Shame (theme: "Goes Girly"), its twelfth "annual festival of homosexual misery" was an appropriate coda to the happy, clappiness of Gay Pride day in London.

Duckie, of course, has an exuberant, irrepressible and utterly irreverent record here when it comes to dominant gay culture. Since 1995, its creators, Simon Casson and Amy Lamé have been questioning the herd mentality that rules that gay = uniformity, mega-discos and mega-drugs. Oh, of course people want to belong to a group, acknowledges Duckie, but, isn't it much more fun on the margins? It's here, after all, that individual creativity comes to the fore. Duckie has been helped on its way by many regular performers, from the truly iconoclastic David Hoyle onwards, but it's this message that's run through its history.

The paradox is that there'd be no Duckie had it not been for the generations of gay and lesbian activists whose lives and works predated it. Delightfully, Duckie has never been oppositional just for the sake of being bloody-minded. Rather, there's an attractive old-fashionedness way of thought in operation: the personal is political, it suggests – acknowledge this truth and life will never be the same again.

With this in mind, it makes perfect sense that one of the artists who has graced the stage at both Duckie and at this year's Shame is Lois Weaver. A veteran of New York's Split Britches company (with Peggy Shaw), of WOW (the Women's Only Café) and in London, Gay Sweatshop, Weaver is a writer/actor/academic whose work has focussed on the performance of femininity for some 30 years. While this is of interest in terms of feminism, it becomes really interesting when one introduces a bit of gender slippage and queer identity into the mix. Femininity in a lesbian context, suggests Weaver, never the valium-lapped backwater that a wider consumerist world might want it to be.

Unsurprisingly, Weaver is no stranger to Duckie. Her backwards stripteases, appearances by Tammy WhyNot, a country singer turned lesbian performer, and – on at least one occasion, the Dance of the Seven Wigs, have all brought both humour and steely glint to her subject. At Hitchcock Handbags, Weaver presided over the best sideshow that 2009's Shame had to offer. Her character of Mother – a truly scary character straight out of Psycho (but this time alive) – grabbed your money, shoved you into her shop, where two immaculate shop assistants flapped in a seizure of performance and an assistant invited you to try handbags – some lacerated, some fitted with flashing electrodes and others with video screens playing Hitchcock footage.

Screeds have been written about handbags (think the fascination with Mrs Thatcher's), not least in Hitchcock's films. They have been deconstructed (exploded?!) as signifiers of femininity, as metaphors for the female body, as phallic examples of a woman's mysterious 'equipment'. There's a glorious twist at the end of Weaver's Handbags sideshow… be warned. (Clue: the programme for Gay Shame Goes Girly features a vagina dentata.)

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