There isn’t an easy way to write about Taylor Mac’s work. Founded on the principle of deliberately resisting categorisation – while at the same time parodying everything including the processes of its own reception – Taylor Mac’s method is an often lethal mix of wit, music, visual art and audience participation. On this occasion we get to sample Mac’s latest creation – a 24-hour-long history class served as a cross between musical, fashion show and a kind of love-in. Though it brands itself as a show about the history of popular music, it is in fact an alternative history of American politics itself, starting as it does in 1776.
The three-hour section presented here simultaneously as part of the LIFT festival and the Barbican’s own The Art of Change Season, covers only a tiny sliver (the three concluding decades of the 18th century) of the show as a whole. Nevertheless this is more than enough to take the audience on an exhilarating ride from the raucous and the ridiculous to the edifying and the sublime.
For those who remember Mac’s performances at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern or the Edinburgh Fringe some ten-fifteen years ago, the change in scale will feel monumental. Gone is the besequinned waif, quipping and strumming pensively on a ukulele to an audience of confidantes. Years of hard work and numerous awards later, Mac has blossomed into a full scale diva with the kinds of frocks and headdresses that require a temple. Nevertheless, the overwhelming impression is that in the process, Mac has left none of the old friends behind. This epic new show has scores of musicians, singers, chorus members and other kinds of collaborators on board – fondly referred to as the Dandy Minions. And the loyal audiences have followed too. That said, the point of the show is to blur the boundaries between the mainstream and the queer making us all feel equally at home together – and this it does extremely well!
How do we build ourselves when at the same time we are torn apart? – is the central question of the show which amongst other things takes the tracts, pamphlets and revolutionary articles from the historical archives just as seriously as the range of folk ballads, nursery rhymes and drinking songs which form the backbone of the show. Mac honours these original songs by at the same time, questioning, interpreting, dissecting, fantasising and extemporising around them – all in the interest of mining their latent political function. At times, audience members are roped into impromptu role-play exercises stemming from the song lyrics and other material, and giving Mac the air of a crazy kindergarden teacher. (‘Crazy’, by the way, is an adjective voraciously claimed by Mac, and there is a whole story to warm your cockles on that subject alone.)
It is an extraordinarily rich show. Quite explicitly concept-led, it foregrounds the process rather than the product, the ‘making rather than the shopping’, and its own political provenance as a left-field, anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist and, chiefly, feminist show. That this is not a token is demonstrated by a sort of generosity of spirit that permeates every fibre of its being (and despite the fact that generosity traditionally feels a bit out of place in a show like this). The female backing vocals and musicians are frequently transformed into truly stunning soloists here. Deliberate carefully orchestrated chaos is unleashed on the auditorium at times: ping pong balls, cans of beer, apple cadavers will grace every crevice of the auditorium by the end of this so called ‘first act’, but this too will feel like a relic of a performance art piece rather than a mere aftermath of a carnival.
That we are indeed in the hands of a Genius – crowned as such by the 2017 MacArthur Foundation award – becomes clear towards the end of this three hour piece as Mac follows up the singing of drinking songs by having the audience tell ‘puking stories’ to each other. (‘Because everyone has one!’) The accompanying injunction to physically comfort each other in response becomes not only a matter of common sense, but also helps to bathe the audience in a pool of empathy and resulting elation, before they are allowed to depart home following what has evidently unfolded as a ritual (as promised at the beginning) rather than simply an evening of entertainment (as it seemed all along). The notion of theatre as a kind of utopia, once famously theorised by Jill Dolan, certainly suggests itself here anew.
Though much of this is delivered tongue in cheek and with spine-tingling amounts of irreverent playfulness, it must be said that at the core of the piece is certainly Taylor Mac, the consummate poet and the truly accomplished singer. Ultimately, however, Mac’s creation on this occasion is a kind of history class that must urgently find its way onto every high school curriculum.
Taylor Mac – A 24-Hour History of Popular Music: The First Act was performed at the Barbican as part of LIFT 2018. Click here for more details.