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Theatre in her throat

Stephen Armstrong

Christine Johnston, Decent Spinster Christine Johnston, Decent Spinster
photo Chris Osborne
The first time I encountered Christine Johnston (accompanied by Trent Arkley-Smith on cello) she was wordlessly vocalising the shape and texture of random hairstyles among the audience of The Crab Room, a short-lived but legendary artists’ space in Brisbane in the 90s. Wearing her high-necked, Edwardian cape-gown and exaggerated but immaculate nest of hair, Johnston’s handsome, slightly melancholic, straight-faced and straight-backed clown was as mesmerising to watch as to listen to: she could sing—really sing—and unlike most clowns, she was terribly funny.

That same evening at The Crab Room we’d all been thoroughly spooked by performer Lisa O’Neill whose porcelain persona and minimalist movement could fix time and space head-on with the ferocity of a strobe. Later, a taciturn fellow patiently arranged and set off dozens of noisy tea-bag jiggling devices he’d ingeniously fashioned from found mechanical objects and, as we sipped hot tea deep into the night, a couple of story-telling hombres turned up and baked (180 degrees for 45 mins) and served up an array of cakes. These were very same cakes, they explained, which had silently featured during tête-a-têtes, grievings, seductions, unholy confessions and domestic farces with which they now regaled us—using Daisy Buchanan dropped voices to make you lean forward, cake and cup in hand, to overhear the marvellously scandalous codas. I’d been living in Brisbane only a short while and I remember thinking how relieving was the artfulness of strangers in the face of suburban exile.

Soon after, Wesley Enoch invited Johnston to create a soundscape for his Queensland Theatre Company production of Louis Nowra’s Radiance with Deborah Mailman. The sense of place and dramatic colour of Johnston’s off-stage vocal evocation of birds, frogs, insects and the mud-gurgle of tidal mangrove was simply staggering. Never just a mimic, Johnston makes theatre in her throat.

With creative consultant, Lisa O’Neill and dramaturg Louise Gough, in Decent Spinster, Johnston re-works some of her familiar cabaret style vignettes and conceives the journey of the Spinster into a full length show joined by a trio of fine musicians (Trent Arkley-Smith, Peter Nelson and Owen Newcomb), as easily at home with Schubert as with Black Sabbath or Dead Can Dance. With a simple set comprising screen and curtain (and an assemblage of adapted home appliances), Johnston invites us first into her Super-8 childhood where she is a trike-riding gatherer of chooks, insects and detritus. She is alone, wordlessly befriending and exchanging secrets with the feathered, the taxidermed and the inanimate and, haunting her birthday party even then, the ghostly band who escort her with flashlights into the playing space.

In this surreal biopic, the Spinster obsessively reads, documents and sounds the world back at itself with absurdist detachment and unsettling if comic curiosity. She is in the world and out of it and employs a host of narrative devices to keep the audience engaged—she is a consummately generous performer—but also at bay. With projections of simple but witty snaps that supernaturally glide her from foregound to middle ground, from voyeur to unlikely participant, we track the Spinster’s journey from the semi-rural suburbs of Brisbane into the traffic dominated inner city—roller bladers, cyclists, scooter riders, skate-boarders and hot rod racers—regularly cadging a lift in the process. We know she loves contraptions and it is the machine not the person that she seduces. Later, there are scenes where the Spinster pleasures herself with the belt of a weight loss machine; a guitar descends from heaven (those ghostly musicians pulling strings again?) and the Spinster lets loose; while her musical duet with the ‘man-sized’ saw (no-one touches Johnston when it comes to saw playing!) is completely riveting.

Not simply the ingenue, she also insists on lecturing us with her soundings—the singing of graphs and charts, interpreting for us through the dead language of song, Latin, the bleating bumper stickers of suburban tribalism. Yet these are also some of the funniest moments of the piece, eg Comedo Magi Bubbum—“Cops Are Tops.” And Johnstone knows just when to move on. Decent Spinster reminds me of Martin Amis’ Martianism, where to be an observer is to be imbued with what is observed, but never to leave yourself free of escape. In the spaces between we can only be grateful for the artfulness of strangers—the Spinster sings: Stella Porni.

Decent Spinster, Christine Johnston, The Studio, Sydney Opera House, May 7-1

RealTime issue #56 Aug-Sept 2003 pg. 44

© Stephen Armstrong; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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