Review: Betty Grumble’s LOVE AND ANGER (or Sex Clown Saves The World AGAIN!)
If Iggy Pop and Patti Smith had a love child, and Annie Sprinkle and David Bowie had a love child, and then those two love children made love to each other on a bed of roses, high on acid, rage and love, they would give birth to Emma Maye Gibson’s drag alter ego Betty Grumble. That’s about the closest I can come to trying to describe the glorious, unreal and completely authentically beautiful mess that is the protagonist of LOVE AND ANGER (or Sex Clown Saves The World AGAIN!).
I’m sitting in the Bearded Tit in Redfern, a Sydney favourite with locals, queers and hipsters alike – and it is rammed. There is a giddy atmosphere as people jostle for space whilst simultaneously making room for one another. There is a sense of anticipation that is palpable and it’s evident there are some die-hard Betty fans in the audience.
Finally, just when it feels like the room might explode and spill people out onto Regent Street, Gibson leaps onto the stage in her full Betty Grumble regalia: signature exaggerated make up, huge Dolly Parton style curly wig, a white jacket and huge white can-can skirt (like most of her costumes, pilfered from her mother’s wardrobe) covered in black hand-written text. There is a brief moment her back is to us before the show begins, in which I catch Joni Mitchell’s words, written into the top left of Betty’s jacket: “…we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden…” which is exactly where Gibson takes us – a magical, fierce, feminist Eden full of dangling ecosexuality ripe and ready to be plucked and bitten into.
Grumble is never clothed for long and she’s only on stage mere moments before her vagina is singing a rendition of “Lovin’ you” by Minnie Ripperton. Immediately, the audience are equal amounts shocked, enthralled and in stitches. Part of the joy of any Grumble performance is watching the reactions of the audience – especially first timers who have never witnessed her inimitable blend of outrageous comedy, physical theatre, sex clowning and nudity. The show includes the anomalous use of hankies, glad wrap and vases (whatever your imagination conjures, it won’t even come close to what Grumble does with them), as well as the S.C.U.M Manifesto.
The radical feminist text S.C.U.M (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto was written by Valerie Solanas in 1967 and published in 1968 (the same year she infamously shot Andy Warhol). Ultimately, Solanas writes that men have destroyed the world and the only way to save it is through the elimination of the male race. It has long polarised feminists with many believing it to be simply a literary device with which to explore the patriarchy, and others regarding it as damaging to the feminist cause. Grumble uses the text throughout her show but opens with the disclaiming chant “this is a metaphor, metaphor, metaphor”, getting the audience to chant it with her. It’s evident her intent is to allay fears she’s a man hating feminist, a sentiment she reiterates throughout the show.
Ultimately, herein lies the ingeniousness of Grumble’s work. Though the show is a riot of body paint, hundreds-and-thousands, messy liquids and a roaring soundtrack, it is firmly rooted in an intellectual landscape of feminism and ecosexuality. It is cerebral enough to make even the most radical lefty think, but accessible in a way that newbies to the world of feminism and ecosexuality won’t feel lost or left out. It’s intelligent entertainment at its best – rather than feeling like you’re being beaten over the head with a message, you feel invested, engaged, immersed. Additionally, Grumble is excellent at audience participation – constantly ensuring the audience is with her at all times, she uses call and response and open-ended questions to keep the crowd with her physically as well as viscerally.
There are a number of surprising moments in the show that really demonstrate the holistic artistry of Grumble. For one, she is an excellent singer and I would have loved to have heard more songs that demonstrate the power of her voice; she’s not a bad poet – as proven by a poetry performance piece towards the end of the show evidently harking back to the great beat poets; and the sheer physicality of the entire performance is akin to a 60-minute aerobic workout. It is literally astounding that she can maintain such a frantic, frenetic energy for the entirety of the show and do so seemingly without effort.
There are also many goosebump-inducing moments. Though Grumble is obviously adept as a clown and explicit body performer, she can also hold the audience and space in moments of true nakedness – her stories of a fraught relationship with her mother, her brothers Spinal Muscular Atrophy and subsequent requirement of a wheelchair, her own experiences of being catcalled and objectified, all shared earnestly, honestly and with great intent. These moments lend huge humanity to the otherwise mad energy that encompasses the messy stage, they are what connect us to the human beneath Betty’s mask.
Ultimately, through her performance and her body, Grumble reveals the grotesqueness of the patriarchy, of the corporatisation of the world, of the damage being done to earth and her god Gaia and also grants us permission to feel the madness and mayhem of it all. And throughout, Betty holds us in her bosom and tells us over and over again that it’s okay to feel love and anger in equal amounts.
Candy Royalle is a Sydney based writer, performer and activist.
Betty Grumble’s LOVE AND ANGER (or Sex Clown Saves The World AGAIN!) was presented at the Bearded Tit 14 January 2018.