Melbourne Festival: In Spite of Myself

In Spite Of Myself, starring Nicola Gunn, conceived by Nicola Gunn and directed by Nicola Gunn, is all about Nicola Gunn. We know this because Nicola Gunn keeps telling us.

In Spite of Myself. Photo by Pier Carthew
In Spite of Myself. Photo by Pier Carthew

But the show quickly becomes something different. I was going to write “something bigger” but the beauty of this work is that, regardless of the Arts Centre and Melbourne Festival support and regardless of the giant billboard of a reclining Gunn in the promo material, In Spite Of Myself remains small and revealing.

It is a work that is hyper-aware of its components – we watch the stage manager position and re-position the lectern at the whims of the performer and lighting cues are clearly signaled and discussed – but it is also incredibly conscious of its audience as individuals, not merely a faceless mass. I felt engaged as an individual and knew that my experience of the work was unique.

So what is In Spite Of Myself about, if not Nicola Gunn? For me, it is about creating work, the ridiculousness of art as a pursuit and of artists as people. If this sounds cliché, don’t worry: Gunn embraces clichés. The show is rife with them: clichés of performance art, traumatic childhood memories, arts administration, audience interaction and presentations. Yet it pushes through the obvious and, within each familiar platitude, finds something new and telling and utterly hilarious.

Gunn is hysterically funny. Her physical work is nuanced, every action made more ridiculous by being completely recognisable. The parodies of performance art left my stomach sore from laughter (the video installation, Carpet Burn, was a particular highlight).

However, there comes a point when all this falls away and we fall silent and lean in and begin to truly feel for Gunn. For me, I think it was somewhere around the point at which the trio of old women were setting out Plasticine sculptures for Gunn to destroy as she ran in manic circles, breathlessly telling herself “I’m happy, I’m happy, I’m happy”. When she began to self-flagellate with limp sticks of celery, I chuckled for an instant and then, as ridiculous as is to recount, I sympathised. Deeply.

Despite telling us that the piece is made up of a multitude of derivative moments, tributes to artists and academics past and present, the collective effect of In Spite Of Myself is utterly unique. Despite all but declaring itself to be an ego-driven exercise, it is self-deprecating and humble in its culmination. When Gunn drops her facade and simply states that “writing a play is really hard”, the audience ripple with understanding.

In the final moments, when she declares the work to be silliness and easily forgettable, I found myself simultaneously agreeing (it is delightfully silly) and vehemently disagreeing: In Spite Of Myself is anything but forgettable.

Fleur Kilpatrick is a Melbourne-based writer and director and a guest reviewer for the Melbourne Festival. 

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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