In the course of their official duties, queens must have to sit through plenty of strange shows. Still, it’s unlikely that, over the seven super-patient decades of her reign, Elizabeth II has ever listened to anything quite like the act that greeted Queen Sonja of Norway when she opened the Bergen Festival last month. It included, for example, an account of a New York cabaret artiste whose speciality involved extracting chicken legs from her vagina.
True, Queen Sonja is a broad-minded, arts-loving royal consort rather than a reigning monarch. And the American actor-singer, dramatist and drag artist Taylor Mac — who opened this year’s festival with the queen in the front row — described that turn precisely to point out how safe most of his allegedly “transgressive” work is compared to hard-core avant-garde performance (in his words, “I’m just putting on eye-liner”).
All the same, postcard-pretty Bergen has a reputation as a fairly conservative city. The choice of the multi-talented travesti satirist Mac to headline the festival’s opening day did make gentle waves among the burghers of the wealthy port. Mac, who delivered an abridged version of his epic A 24-Decade History of Popular Music in a succession of surreally elaborate costumes with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra as his backing band, later said that the queen had told him that his show was very different from her usual entertainment. Properly regal understatement. Yet, after a night of camp, glitz, smut and intermittent magic, we still all stood formally in the vast Grieghallen until the royal party had departed.
Context is everything. During Pride month, bandwagon-jumping corporations now proclaim their sexual inclusiveness and gender flexibility with the same unctuous, hand-wringing zeal that would once have led them to advertise — well, a royal warrant or patronage by the nobility. Every investment bank, coffee chain and sportswear brand wraps itself in a rainbow flag — just as Saudi Arabia bans the same motif to remind us that globalisation has strict limits. Even within the tolerant West, however, you don’t need to travel too far to find places where razzle-dazzle, gender-bending spectacle may still create a frisson of unease.
Later this month, Mac and musical partner Matt Ray will perform songs from a new project “celebrating queer luminaries throughout history” at the Public Theater in New York — a marriage of venue and genre roughly as subversive as a solemn Latin Mass at Brompton Oratory. Move a little way outside metropolitan comfort zones, though, as Mac did in Norway, and the treacly clichés of mainstream diversity-speak pick up some spice and bite again. Especially as Mac always makes audience participation a key element of his act: pointless when you’re preaching to the choir, but capable of sparking a crackle of agitation or alarm when public and performer may not share the same cultural space. Although, as he admitted in a post-show discussion, “The only person I knew I wasn’t going to call up on stage was the queen.” But he did (inadvertently) summon the city’s former mayor.
I had come to Bergen in search of more traditional musical fare: a stupendous recital by the great, locally-trained soprano Lise Davidsen with pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, for example. Taylor Mac’s show came as a welcome, surprising — even slightly nostalgic — reminder of a time when camp still kept its edge, when drag queens did not bask in the same aura of respectability as actual queens, and when bids to escape sexual orthodoxy might still bring risk and peril. Mac (born Taylor Mac Bowyer in California in 1973) is no run-of-the-mill drag star.
A garlanded playwright, actor and songwriter he has written a sequel to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus from the perspective of the clown who has to clean up after the slaughter (Gary) and, most recently, transformed the last hours of Socrates into a philosophical queer musical (The Hang). In A 24-Decade History of Popular Music — a moveable feast re-edited to suit venue and occasion — he appears clad in the steepling motley baroque of the outfits created by his designer Machine Dazzle, or else spotlit as a near-naked middle-aged cherub stranded in his lonely, frail humanity.
Mac comes across as part-topical stand-up, part-cabaret diva, and part-pantomime dame. The songs, cherrypicked from the 246 numbers that filled the original, day-long show premiered in 2016, span the social history of American popular music. With Ukraine on all minds, the pity of war and the patriarchal forces that drive men to wage it haunted his Bergen outing. So we had blistering renditions of the Civil War anthem “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”, Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”, and even an ironic-yet-sincere “Keep the Home Fires Burning” (written, as he should have pointed out, by a gay Welshman, Ivor Novello).
Satirical patter punctuated the music as Mac lured not just individual audience members on stage but whole demographic subdivisions of the house. At one point he invited every man from 14 to 40 (front-line fighting age) and coaxed them, in pairs, to support each other as they rested as tired troops did in the trenches of the Western Front. Even in enlightened Norway, he noted, some of this stage army found that public tenderness a tough call — but they enlisted all the same.
This recruitment of the audience works best — as he later suggested — when spectators harbour a degree of ambivalence towards him, his ideas and his show: “I want that person who’s maybe a little uncomfortable but game.” Audience participation can have a sacrificial, even fascistic tinge. I’ve seen Barry Humphries, in Dame Edna Everage mode, humiliate over-eager fans who naively craved a spell in the spotlight with the housewife superstar. This felt much less hostile, chiefly because Mac doesn’t simply want to preach to the converted, or outrage the easily-offended. Rather, he turns mixed feelings into fuel.
In a contemporary culture that demands an all-or-nothing, with-us-or-against-us commitment to creeds, causes and “communities” (real or imagined), Mac plays deftly on uncertainty, curiosity and hesitation. Hence a polite, tolerant but somewhat strait-laced city might suit a show like this better than the usual citadels of conventional diversity. In Britain, I’d like to see him play Cheltenham or Harrogate rather than Brighton. After all, that’s where most people still — figuratively — live. (Coincidentally, a report issued last week by the anti-polarisation think tank More in Common finds that a majority in Britain takes “a nuanced, compassionate approach” to transgender issues, and feels remote from the “divisive debate” that grabs headlines and drives online fury.)
Mac’s mischief, irony and generosity seem far removed from the drilled and anxious conformism of sex-and-gender ideology today. Witness his exemplary response to an interview question about identity politics from writer Garth Greenwell: “Ugh! Bleh! Ah! Ugh!” Exactly so. As he then explained, “What I mean is, if you spend a lot of time defining who you are, you’re not spending that time paying attention.” Like all good performers, he pays attention, and makes us do so.
Mac is a bit too young to count as a veteran jester. But his sardonic distance from the verbal and emotional straitjackets of institutional liberalism does carry the salty tang of an earlier, less pious age. Even down to his droll choice of a preferred pronoun. It’s “judy” (as in Garland). Use it, as earnest academics and critics have, and you join his act: audience participation again. I did consider it for this article (“judy places judyself in the tradition of the court fool, while judy’s work draws on the styles of Italian commedia dell’arte”, etc) but couldn’t quite keep a straight face.
Mac’s style and sensibility has its roots in a period and place when sexual dissidence brought few corporate plaudits or academic honours. His awakening came during the shame, stigma and dread of the early Aids epidemic. He talks movingly of going for the first time to a gay march in San Francisco in 1987 — and seeing lines of men in wheelchairs pushed by friends and partners. As an actor, playwright, singer — and cross-dressing cabaret performer — in New York from the early Nineties, he belonged to the generation that worked fearlessly to defy the shame, erase the stigma, and overcome the dread.
Often mocked and vilified, Mac and the other impolite, in-your-face campaigners of those days helped disseminate correct information, kickstarted research and treatment, and so saved or improved the lives of millions, irrespective of their sexual orientation. The idea of rebuilding in the wake of calamity has sustained his writing ever since. In A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, that theme embraces the trials and triumphs of communities from plantation slaves to Jewish tenement-dwellers, not just sexual minorities. Yes, the notion of solidarity among the downtrodden has its sentimental, wish-fulfilment side. It still makes for a more eclectic, invigorating show than the smug, prickly tribalism that marks much satire today.
Above all, Mac aspires to do more than hug his allies and repel his foes. He stages, and so tries to dissolve, polarisation rather than feeding off it as most “radical” art does. He has said that “practically all my works are little fever-dream prayers asking the audience to wonder together rather than be in suspicion”. He doesn’t require endorsement from an audience and welcomes all reactions, “even if you hate the show” (though, in my experience, only performers sure of their talent ever have the chutzpah to make that claim).
Mac thrives on blurred, divided responses not just in his public but in himself. In Bergen, the most entrancing moment came not in some belted high-octane version of a reconditioned standard (though Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” did raise the roof), but when he ushered the local Edvard Grieg Choir on stage. They sang, a cappella, the lovely 18th-century hymn “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree”, a favourite of American Baptists: “The tree of life my soul hath seen/ Laden with fruit and always green/ The trees of nature fruitless be,/ Compared with Christ the Apple Tree.”
Meanwhile, Mac reflected on the beauty of the melody, the less-than-beautiful record of some power-abusing churches, and the odd urge to prove faith by downgrading nature itself. WB Yeats wrote: “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” Most “progressive” performance lazily contents itself with rhetoric. Taylor Mac sometimes touches poetry.