THE outrageous Aussies of Briefs are back to prove there’s far more to ‘boy-lesque’ than six-packs and lycra, writes Claire Smith
It’s funny, filthy, outrageous and makes you feel like you are at the weirdest, wildest party on Earth.Born out of the Brisbane club scene, Briefs: The Second Coming made its international debut at the Fringe and has since gone on to wow audiences around the world.
Now the Australian “boy-lesque” troupe are returning to Edinburgh to become part of the city’s Christmas celebrations. Fez Faanana, the host and artistic director, speaks to me via Skype during a brief break in sweltering Queensland. He has just endured “the journey from hell” – travelling from Berlin, where the Briefs boys have just enjoyed another smash hit run.
“I’m so embarrassed. I lost my passport,” he says. “All this travelling and I’m still messing up.”
He’s looking forward to bringing the show back to Edinburgh, which is where Briefs made the transition from cult Aussie club show to acclaimed international act.
For the uninitiated, the cast of Briefs are male burlesque performers par excellence. They include not one, but two former holders of the world title King of Burlesque.
As you might expect, Briefs: The Second Coming is a joyful celebration of the male physique. But it has so much more to offer, bringing in circus, magic, comedy, dance and one particularly jaw-dropping routine involving a drag queen on roller skates and a man dressed as a puppy.
“That moment changes the direction of the whole show,” says Faanana, whose background is in dance. “Our vision is trying to stuff a lot of things into something that doesn’t fit.”
The show is certainly crammed with visual surprises and startling imagery. “People enjoy being a bit confused. And it is theatre. What is the worst that can happen?”
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The elegant Faanana, who was born in Samoa but raised in Brisbane, hosts the show in the guise of a trashy bearded diva called Shivannah.
His character, who favours vertiginous heels, bright lycra dresses, jewelled baseball caps and leopardskin, is an extreme take on the “daggy” reputation of his home city.
“Brisbane is quite often the butt of cultural jokes in Australia. We play around with the idea of coming from such a marginalised place.”
Of the other members of the Briefs cast, both Mark “Captain Kidd” Winmill and the character know as Evil Hate Monkey are well-known burlesque stars in their own right. Winmill, who has appeared with world famous circus cabaret variety show La Clique, is renowned for performances that are very male, muscular and messy.
“Mark has his own visual style and is a really good representative of that combination of circus, drag and burlesque. He was crowed King of Burlesque in 2011 in Las Vegas and was the first Australian ever to enter the burlesque hall of fame,” says Faanana.
Brooklyn born Evil Hate Monkey, who dances en pointe while doing unspeakable things with bananas, is also a former King of Burlesque.
“We met him in Las Vegas at the burlesque pageant run by Dita Von Teese. He was the same size as the old monkey and brought a really electric energy that was really exciting.”
Baby of the troupe is Louis Biggs, acrobat juggler. “He’s the young, sweet-faced 20-year-old. He was only 19 when he joined us – he’s grown up so much,” says Faanana, with a giggle.
Joining Briefs for the performances in Edinburgh will be Thomas Worrell, a top notch circus performer with a killer aerial hoop act and Lachy Shelley, who acts as rigger, puppy and butler.
And adding her own peculiar feminine energy is Dallas Dellaforce – the show’s costume designer and a mesmerisingly weird presence who turns herself into larger than life, avant garde versions of Marilyn Monroe and Rita Hayworth with the help of giant wigs, hats and soft female bodysuits.
Faanana says Dellaforce is a big influence on the overall look of the show. “She grew up in Bundage in a teepee with really hippy parents. Her approach to drag is really from a performance art perspective.”
For a show which takes such a delight in its own bad taste, Briefs has been well received – even by highbrow critics – and it attracts a surprisingly mixed crowd, bringing in old, young, male female, gay and straight. So what makes the whole thing work?
Faanana laughs: “I think it is because we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”
Although Briefs has the same sort of sparkle and verve as other Australian alt cabaret shows, it has an unsettling energy all its own. And while the whole thing pulses with sexuality there is comparatively little of what you might call actual bare striptease.
“It is a play on the whole thing. We set it up but we don’t really give you what you expect. There’s nothing more boring than watching a burlesque show where people take off their clothes one after another and all in the same style.
“There are moments where we strip, but there’s no trying to do a Blue Steel [the self-serious pose Ben Stiller’s character strikes in the fashion spoof movie Zoolander]. We wanted to do something different.
“You can’t have a show that is just high energy the whole time. There needs to be an ebb and flow within it.”
Briefs has an eclectic soundtrack, splicing in everything from opera and music hall ditties to hip hop and pounding euro disco pop. It had its origins in a club cabaret scene that grew up around an alternative bookshop in Brisbane in reaction to the repressive, conservative politics of Queensland.
“There was a bookshop called Ahimsa House with a rehearsal space in a creative suburb of the city. The owner was very generous. We started doing birthday parties. Being broke artists, we would give little performances as gifts. It evolved into a performance club night. We called it Briefs because all the acts had to be brief.”
The Briefs club nights evolved into a cabaret show which toured Australia and then came to Edinburgh in 2010 with producer Linda Catalano. Seeing the quality of other work on the Fringe was a major inspiration, and when the company unexpectedly landed an arts development grant from the government of Queensland, Faanana and the crew decided to pull out all the stops to take the art of boylesque to another level.
Although Shivannah claims to have spent the entire grant on glitter, Briefs used the money to create a fully choreographed show which remains true to its radical performance art roots. “The idea was to do something theatrical. It’s funny and it’s raunchy but it’s also political and clever. Celebrating the freak normalises the freak for the general public. If people see Shivannah in the street they might have extreme reactions – but because they are in the world of Briefs they feel more comfortable with it,” says Faanana.
“You can take it as it is and enjoy it, but it’s also something you might be able to read into. If you want to walk away with something there are a whole lot of other layers.” n
• Briefs is at the Spiegeltent in St Andrew Square, Edinburgh, from Thursday until 4 January as part of Edinburgh’s Christmas, www.edinburghschristmas.com
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