It's 6 pm on Saturday night, and we've just hit the northern outskirts of Brisbane - that long drag through Carseldine into town - and I'm starting to get my usual reaction to Brisbane; the hair on the back of my neck is up, sweating palms, prickling scalp, and the unmistakable metallic taste of anger rising at the back of my palate.
By Kedron I'm subdued and sullen, with a rising heart rate and churning gut. G-man is calm: I'm in my inexplicable state of Brisbane induced turmoil. He didn't grow up here. I did. He's optimistically looking forward to a night out in town - something we rarely do because it's a four hour round trip and we seldom get the opportunity or a good enough reason to leave the farm. Now that the city is quickly rising up around us, sucking us into its glaring lume, I'm consumed by physical flight response.
We've got tickets to the opening night of The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco at the Arts Theatre, Birmo's book adapted by Simon Bedak. I'd seen Falafel years ago in a pub in Sydney - a riotous muck-up performed in a seedy pub in the inner west. It was a total hoot, and I should have been looking forward to this with the same optimism as G-man but, I'm heading into the heartland of my youth, a place I'd spent most of my waking hours trying to figure out how to get the hell out of.
We park the car and scale the hill to Petrie Terrace in search of the pub where Bedak and crew would be having a pre-performance nerve settling bevvy or three. It's humid and by the time we get to the Normanby Hotel I'm shiny with condensation or apprehension - not sure which. I get to finally meet Mrs Bedak and jump into her lap to snuggle up into her aura of calm self possession, hoping to take the edge of my rising hysteria. A beer would help too.
As we walk along the terrace to theatre I realise that Bedak is in the same state as me - hyper and agitated - but he's got a perfectly good reason. He's about to see a bunch of kids pretend to be the characters he's lifted off Birmo's page. He's going to sit amongst a crowd of people in a darkened room and ride the knife edge of success or failure. He's going to feel every pang of terror at the delivery of each line, each passage of action; is it working? It's a bit like being in a car crash when time passes excruciatingly slowly because your adrenalin has kicked in and you've got all the time in the world to imagine how you could have done it better in the shadow between the action and reaction.
The lights go down. Finally, I feel my oppressive Brisbane cringe relax. I love this part of the theatre experience, in the darkened room where you know there are a hundred other people breathing all around you, in that hushed moment before you become one thing, an audience, its concentration fixed on that red velvet curtain about to open and transport you into an imaginary world - a waking dream. The curtain sweeps aside and there it is, the set, crisp and surreal in a dazzle of light, contained as if in a snow dome.
That's when it hits me like a 'punch in the guts'. The smell. The visual squalor of the set of Tassie Babes triggers a memory so acute it registers as a smell that defines my whole young adult life in Brisbane; stale cigarette, pot-reek, pungent week old garbage, foetid slime-slick fridge crisper, cockroach dirt, rat shit, rot, damp, semen and mouldy sheets, ammoniac piss splashed dunnies, and the stench of alcohol sodden upholstery, rancid fat and the cheesy putridity of empty pizza boxes.
I'm gone. I'm back there; disbelief disintegrated in that moment. When the characters emerge I'm no longer in my body. I'm there, suspended completely in the present of the unfolding drama of the characters' weird fucked-up Peter-Pan floating life, totally sucked into their car crash of one moment to the next - a whole era of my own experience condensed by Birmo and Bedak into a couple of hours of intense, horrible, exuberant, excruciating, ebullient, manic, tragic roller-coaster of a ride through time and space.
And miraculously, as the last of the applause crackles and subsides, and the hubbub of chatter rises and reality resumes its in-your-face clamour for attention, I find that the clench at my innards is gone and I have to ask myself why the play has had such a cathartic effect. The middle of that word is 'art', and I'm pretty certain that is what I have just seen - a work of art. Light-weight escapist slapstick comedy does not have this effect. Tassy Babes may employ all those elements, but it is so much more.
Outside in the foyer the after-party is already hotting up. There's a stack of 'meat-lover's-with-pineapple' pizzas and junk food of every possible kind laid out for the punters to max their already excited conversation into overdrive with a sugar fix of massive proportions. The actors are literally glowing - it's still fairly humid - but you can feel the energy that's still arcing between them leak out and earth itself in the crowd. But best of all is Bedak, surrounded by the cast, his black eyebrows raised in the most adorable look of wonder and amazement at his own achievement, both delighted and unsure, like a little kid who's just run his guts out and won the race but can't understand why he's getting all the backslaps because he's still gasping for air. And Birmo beaming. And me, running up to the actors wishing I was five so I could just hug their legs in overwhelmed gratitude, but stuck with being adult and having to find something to say. But what can I say? Nothing I could possibly say is equal to what they have just done.
Luckily, I don't have the opportunity to stay and drink too much and become ridiculous. After a round of quick 'fuckitybyes', I set out with G-man for the long ride back to the farm.
Beyond the Brisbane outlands, enclosed in a cocoon of hurtling speed, I have the chance to integrate the memory of what I've just seen and heard into a larger matrix of memory and experience and become even more convinced that Babes is a work of art. I feed it though all the other plays I've ever seen (and I've seen a lot, I was an actors' agent in Sydney before crossing over into literature). I've seen the best and the worst, sat in the dark with audiences from the Fitzroy Hotel to the Opera House, been moved by Shakespeare and Tosca, amused by Brecht and annoyed by Chekov. About Babes, I'm thinking Restoration comedy and Coward, farce, comedy of manners. I'm re-running it, recalling scenes, lines, gags and staging.
Then I get it. There are a couple of emotionally charged moments in the play, but one in particular that perfectly and subtly offsets all the mayhem, in which JB and Stacy almost connect, and a line or two of commentary on the moment by JB to the audience. I realise that all that time ago, I was her, Stace. I was that house den mother. I had her sass, her mouth, her desire to create order out of chaos, and her fond hope of something well, better.
Then I'm struck by the violence that permeates the work, expressed in the constant battle to survive, the oppressive only thinly repressed anger at the cops, the rough white-shoe shod power of the developers, the chick on chick bullying and the desire to just leave it all on hold for a moment and just get trashed.
By the Morayfield turnoff, I've finally got a handle on precisely what it is that makes my skin crawl on approach to Brisbane. Those memories, the confused buried feelings I have about that place are all about the violence I've never dealt with, violence I endured and to my shame occasionally perpetrated against others - the street marches, the petty bitching, the public and the personal acts of aggression that formed me and made me into the adult I have become.
I don't mean that theatre is a form of social working, or trauma workshopping, or over-share - it can be all those things. What I mean is that it can hold a mirror up to your life, a mirror that reveals all the spots and blemishes, the scars and lines. You can run, turn away, reach for the spack-filler and pretend it's not you, but it is far more useful to stand there naked, take a good hard look and face the truth about yourself and your past. Art is innocent in this. It can't make you go there - there was nothing to stop me closing my eyes and jamming my fingers in my ears - but if it is interesting and entertaining enough, it can hold your attention for the length of time it takes for you to absorb it in its complete form, with all its resonant complexity. Art doesn't change the world; it doesn't actually do anything. But man, it can make you think if you have the courage to lay yourself open to its meaning.
And so, ladies and gentlemen of the cast and grew of Tassie Babes, to Natalie, Bedak and Birmo, thanks for that.
And to you, the audience who went there with me, thanks for the shared pleasure and pain.
And to anyone reading, reach down the back of the couch and find enough loose change to do yourself a big favour. Go see Tassie Babes.