A refugee from East Berlin with a botched sex change operation and a catalogue of stolen songs does not seem a likely subject for a stage show, yet this is exactly what Hedwig and The Angry Inch professes to be. Having taken over @Newtown in the latter half of last year, iOTA has reprised the role at the Tom Mann theatre in Surry Hills as part of the Mardi Gras for this year.
This is a good thing, as the show is something of a tour de force: funny, confronting and dang near moving over the course of its ninety minutes. A more varied crowd than attended The Dying Gaul included men, women and, more surprisingly, older couples.
The subject matter isn’t exactly mainstream.
Hedwig (iOTA) takes the stage and regales the audience with tales of her childhood as Hansel in East Berlin, her quest for her other half, and the ingrate boy who took her material for his own.
Based on the movie by John Cameron Mitchell (who returned to the screen last year with Shortbus), Hedwig and the Angry Inch works because it pretends that Hedwig is a monologuist with a band to back her up from time to time. By not trying to act out a story on the stage, but rather putting on a show that is peppered with anecdotes, we get something that’s not quite a musical yet not quite a concert.
iOTA totally sells the audience his portrayal of Hedwig, who is perhaps best described as an unwillingly emotionally detached and bitter showgirl. Not only does he have a great singing voice, which one would have to try very hard to ever confuse for a woman’s, but he makes you feel a part of the performance. He has mastered the art of making you believe that he’s singing for you and you alone: several times during the night we made eye contact and Hedwig beckoned to me during the act – or at least it seemed that way.
I would have been mortified had I been chosen for Hedwig’s lap dance during the show, but having not been involved it was hilarious. Somehow in writing this paragraph I completely forgot the part of the show where a torrent of water erupted from Hedwig’s mouth and I was hit. It’s an involved show.
The only problem with these sorts of shows is that it can be difficult to make out the lyrics. The way that I got around this is that a cast recording was available for sale in the lobby. Depth of sound is sacrificed for clarity, but you can get the messages in this fashion.
Other curiosities of the show, beyond the blinding light that represented Hedwig’s thieving ex Tommy Gnosis, included iOTA’s lampooning of traditional Australian values. “Who is this Hedwig and why have I never heard of her?” he asks. The most intriguing part of the whole thing is that the voice was instantly recognisable as an Australian accent yet I’ve never heard anyone who has actually spoken this way. It’s like our culture has run away from us and taken on a fake life of its own that we recognise as authentic, and this idea is best embodied in the form of a man in a dress pretending to be a refugee from East Berlin.
I can’t imagine that the movie would work like this – I’ve got it on DVD and will watch it later – but Hedwig and the Angry Inch rises to greatness through strong performances and the fact that to break the fourth wall you’d have to literally take a wrecking ball to the theatre.