|Cheryl Wheatley, Queen of the Snakepit|
photo Michael Rayner
I watch transfixed as Lois’ back slowly bends, her shoulders hunch, her face and neck contort and strain. She literally becomes Queenie, aging 30 years. Queenie’s voice is shaky and laboured as she reflects on the past: “pregnant, baby, pregnant, baby, pregnant, baby, pregnant, pregnant, pregnant, baby…“We know Lois has returned when her back straightens and she breaks into her infectious smile.
Lois also becomes Myrtle, the aunt obsessed with feral cats. A slight speech impediment, unusual body language, skirt hitched. Myrtle knows all—she warned the Island community, but no, they did nothing… so she had to take the cat problem into her own hands. Shakily, Myrtle sets up the slide projector to proudly show us the results of the cull. Wheatley effortlessly and convincingly moves between these unique characters.
As Lois she charms the audience with her familiar and friendly attitude, and I often get the feeling that she is smiling right at me; as you would expect in a small community such as Flinders Island. She shares shandies, stories and local knowledge and the audience regularly assist her with stunts or being the object of quite literal illustrations. To prove the force of the wind on the Island, a massive industrial fan is produced and then pointed directly at the audience, blowing coasters and vases off the tables, accompanied by a blustering soundtrack. We also experience “salt spray” first hand from a plastic dispenser while “sailing off the coast.”
I dreaded the prospect of audience involvement from the start of this performance when I sat down in the cabaret-style seating, observed a rubber snake coiled under the table and an empty glass on top. I never really relaxed into the show for fear of being bullied. But even in this state of tension, there was much to enjoy.
There were a few wonderful unplanned moments. Early in the show, Hobart Mayor, Rob Valentine’s hat is run over by the excited Lois and her wind machine, “Oh no, not the hat”, she shrieks (for those who aren’t locals, Valentine is never seen without his iconic wide brimmed hat). Later, on being squirted with the ‘sea spray’, one of the audience calls out “Don’t waste water”, to which Lois, retorts “Yeah, I’m not Dream Masons”; which refers to the obscene amount of water used in another Ten Days on the Island performance.
Wheatley’s one-liners were probably the most engaging aspect of Queen of the Snakepit. While some of the longer stories lost me at times (like the ones surrounding the little girl standing at the window), the vividly active were the most entertaining, such as the ride in the ute with its beautifully minimal props: two flashlights on either side of the esky, with Lois on a milk crate behind. Wheatley used mime and sound effects to evoke the experience, which was particularly funny when inflatable kangaroos were hurled at her oncoming vehicle, prompting a lesson on what to do in such circumstances.
Cheryl Wheatley is a fantastic entertainer and as a result Queen of the Snakepit is a lot of fun. I particularly enjoyed her skills in mime, her character transformations, the very Aussie sense of humour, as well as her infectious enthusiasm. The lasting image for me was of our initial introduction to Lois: a skinny woman weaving her way between the tables in a footy hat, daggy shirt and skirt, knee high beige stockings with a VB-filled esky and a wide welcoming grin.
is theatre, Queen of the Snakepit, deviser/performer Cheryl Wheatley, co-director/dramaturg Robin Laurie, writer Finegan Kruckemeyer, co-director Tania Bosak, designer Greg Methé, executive producer Ryk Goddard; The Backspace Theatre, Hobart, Ten Days on the Island, March 29-31
Lucy Hawthorne is a Hobart based writer with a background in visual arts (sculpture, drawing, sound and installation art), music and dog obsession. She is a postgraduate studying art and design theory at the Tasmanian School of Art.
RealTime issue #78 April-May 2007 pg. web
© Lucy Hawthorne; for permission to reproduce apply to firstname.lastname@example.org