I’ve experienced my share of obscure theatre performances: single-actor monologues whose objectives are to move the audience into uncomfortable territory by evoking surreal emotion. But Unsex Me is an animal of an entirely different species.
Written and performed by Melbourne-based Mark Wilson, tickets for Unsex Me sell out for every performance. The show is premised on an interview of prima donna actress Mark Wilson as she looks back on her life as an actress and her troubling relationship with men. The performance is a series of vignettes; each scene building the tension towards an all-mighty jaw-dropping crescendo that had me leaning all the way back in my seat.
Be warned: this performance is not for the faint-hearted, and it has had members of the audience walk out with her hands covering their mouths. If you don’t like to be chosen for audience participation you shouldn’t sit in the front rows.
This is a dirty, gritty, intimate performance by an actor whose every theatrical decision is astoundingly deliberate. Unsex Me is gruellingly Brechtian in style, dealing with confronting and raw content and laden with thematic richness. Wilson repeatedly draws the viewer into the narrative only to rip them away from it for the shock-factor. He continually breaks the fourth wall in true Epic Theatre style, never for a moment allowing the audience to escape into the world of the play, but reminding them that they are witnessing a performance.
The set consists of a small red leather couch and a big white drape hanging in the background. The house lights remain on for most of the performance, illuminating both the actor and the audience together. The costumes are flamboyant and detailed, with Wilson emerging for the first opening scene wearing an impressive gown made of forty Scottish kilts.
Wilson, who trained at the VCA and Monash Uni and did a stint at London’s Globe theatre, noted Lady Macbeth’s grief and suicide over the death of her child as his original inspiration for Unsex Me. The performance subtlety hints at the taboos around female fertility, is suggestive of Freudian relationships between fathers and their children, and aggressively says something about the way we understand homosexuality.
I have some strong ideas about the themes it dealt with but the intention of Unsex Me remains ambiguous. After the show I went outside to eavesdrop on members of the audience, and the main thing I got (apart from passive smoke) was the array of ways the performance was interpreted. Some people thought it was about the way our culture fetishises celebrity, and it was. Some thought it to be a mocking portrayal of typically feminine behaviour, and it was. Others saw it as about statement on the way homosexuality is received in modern society, and it was. Unsex Me touched on all these topics, while managing to be outrageously funny and energetic.
During Unsex Me I listened to the actor Mark Wilson play the actress Mark Wilson (channeling Lady Macbeth and a homosexual man) for long enough that I forgot who or what I was watching. Was it a man or a woman? Was he playing a she or a he? Was she into men or women? Should it even fucking matter? What is the point?
The only answer I came up with is that this performance is art. And art can do whatever the fuck it wants, whether you like it or not. It moves you, titillates you, outrages you, and it makes you laugh. Sometimes you just have to take it as it comes and try not to boil it down to one thing. Unsex Me is about a lot of things but you don’t really need to know exactly what, you just need to allow the experience to wash over you.
I just hope that the microphone Wilson used on stage was his own.