Review: Taylor Mac at the Belfast International Arts Festival

In an artfully camp revue of WWI-era songs, the dazzling performance artist Taylor Mac conscripts the audience into an enjoyable and revealing queering of history

Artist: Taylor Mac

Venue: The MAC

Date Reviewed: October 25th, 2016

Taylor Mac  ★★★★
Belfast International Arts Festival
The MAC, Belfast 

Taylor Mac can’t fail. This, the viciously dazzling performer, singer and drag artist from New York tells us, is because we are witnessing a “performance art” concert, where mistakes, discomfort, outrage and boredom are all part of the plan. Even hissing is encouraged. It’s a wry and effective approach, where the hyper-attentive and breezily responsive Mac can invert almost any situation.

A gas mask, worn behind judy’s head (Taylor prefers the gender pronoun “judy” and claims the gender category “performer”), becomes a striking headpiece above a kitschy emulation of Belle époque finery. It’s a cunning juxtaposition, because in this archly and often sensitively reconceived revue of songs from the WWI era (sheaved off from a recent 24-Hour project, Taylor prefers the term “radical faerie realness ritual sacrifice”), all that separates civility from chaos is a minor costume adjustment.

Performing with an adept five-piece band, led by musical director Matt Rey on piano, Mac supplies the production’s more sensational visuals with the considerations of his costume designer Machine Dazzle. But, appropriately given this era of conscription, the audience is frequently enlisted for participation, visual gags and sometimes just to supply scenery.

In all this playful anarchy, it would be easy to lose sight of Mac’s mission, which is to honour the past, acknowledge the present and “dream the culture forward”. This is achieved in deliciously artful ways, peeling away the clichés of folk tunes, dusty ditties and the Great American Songbook to reveal honest intentions or coded messages.

Mac begins with a bracingly bellicose version of Amazing Grace, recalls the propaganda battle over the anti-war song, I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier, and traces the trauma of combat and the darkening of popular mood through a shell-shocked take on K-K-K-Katy, then Keep the Home Fires Burning interpreted as a lesbian tryst with the audience as choir.

It all makes for an enjoyable queering of historical narratives, and Mac subversively plays the room throughout: “That’s right; you’re British, but you’re not,” Belfast is told, when Mac realises he must explain the phenomenon of George Formby. One problem with involving the audience, though, is that they can become a little too involved. When an inexplicable piercing laugh undercuts an otherwise gorgeous reading of Molly Bloom’s monologue, Mac hunts down his interrupter, singing into her ear with an affection difficult to distinguish from aggression.

“That’s the art that’s in the room,” he concluded, more peaceably. Few others could take such nerveless command of it, finally making more love than war.

- Taylor Mac performs again on Saturday October 29th