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Dylan Glatz | February 13, 2022

The curtain of Willy Hudson’s Bottom rises and falls with Beyoncé. As theatregoers take their seats, “Love on Top” plays on a loop, affirming protagonist Willy’s devotion to his pop idol— as if the monstrous cut-out mood-boards weren’t enough. Running just shy of an hour, Bottom explores the various illusions and expectations inherent to that all-too-important third date, as Willy expounds alone in his bathroom. Whilst his previous Grindr hook-ups have been overwhelmingly disappointing, he has hopes that, perhaps, this one will be different. After all, he hasn’t yet been asked that dreadfully reductive, crushingly inevitable question: “Top or bottom?”

For those uninitiated into the diaphanous folds of LGBTQIA+ nomenclature, queer queries of “top or bottom?” essentially ask whether one prefers to give or receive during penetrative sex. Thus, it is via Bottom that Willy Hudson strives to unfetter queer men from this oppressive binary. Indeed, being a bottom in the bedroom doesn’t necessarily mean having to always ‘take it’ in life.

Ryan Stewart deftly crafts their performance in this one-hander, overcoming the sort of camp flippancy that often characterises typical Midsumma fare. As Ryan’s singlet and tighty-whities seem to indicate, they bare all in Bottom, yet they also adeptly bear the burden of the show on their shoulders. This costume minimalism is exacerbated by sparse stagecraft, demanding arresting presence and energy, both of which Stewart has in spades. Nonetheless, lighting, set and sound are employed with delicate sensitivity, especially when evoking Willy’s recollections of dead-end jobs and dead-end dates alike. Equally, plush settees and velvety curtains welcome audiences into the confessional, aided by Beyoncé’s tones— the pop paradigm via which theatregoers understand the universality of Willy’s predicament. Never is this clearer than his mandatory inquiry for his dates: “What’s your favourite Beyoncé song?” Audiences cannot help but answer this for themselves, and, just like that, they’ve embarked on their theatrical voyage with Willy.

It’s during these flashback segments that Ryan excels most, cleverly juxtaposing their flamboyant charisma with moments of unsettling gravity; whilst warehouse rave vignettes initially provoked amused chuckles from the audience, the accompanying recognition of many queer men’s chronic dependence on drugs and alcohol remains disturbing. Similarly, Ryan is to be commended on their ability to overcome the weaknesses present in Bottom through their performance; where Hudson’s script quickly skimed over the palpable threat of ‘stealthing’ in the gay community, Stewart’s delivery left a thoughtful, disturbed silence in its wake.

What remains particularly salient is just how long both Ryan and director Gavin Roach have sat with Bottom, and the subsequent development that has engendered. Like many theatre-makers, Gavin and Ryan have capitalised upon the myriad of protracted shutdowns since 2021’s originally slated tour. Subsequently, countless rich semantic details have been generated within a script that could very easily be crippled by the effete nonchalance that it dramatically centres on. This is a credit to both Ryan’s cheeky charm and wry wit, alike.

Altogether, Fringe veteran Gavin Roach’s expert direction and production is marked by a cultivated warmth, generosity and sensitivity. Brief interludes of song and audience participation that might typically induce acquiescent sighs and cringing discomfort were instead greeted with tender giggles and eager contribution. Ultimately, this underscores just how genuinely engaging and insightful Bottom is. Although it answers many questions, it also provokes several other more probing ones. Here, collective rituals regarding sex and dating are revealed to be just that; repeated actions whose functions are entirely divorced from their meaning. Perhaps top/bottom dynamics are equally outmoded, alongside the rigid stereotypes they spawn. This play is a profound celebration of intense subjectivity, and a liberation from the social shackles in which we imprison ourselves.

Notably, Bottom is by no means a revolutionary piece of theatre; it doesn’t break any rules, nor does it challenge much conventionally accepted wisdom. However, Stewart’s discerning performance and Roach’s careful direction ultimately create accessible and entertaining drama. Thus, Bottom’s great success lies in its quiet confidence, and the radical assertion that it is, indeed, enough to put your own love on top.

Bottom was performed as part of Melbourne’s Midsumma festival lineup in 2022.

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Dylan Glatz

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