Briefs: Close Encounters is theatre at its most fun – and most subversive

After a rocking season last year, Briefs Factory returns with their new show Briefs: Close Encounters. Sam Brooks responds to the two very different sides to the show, and how the company marries them.

There are two shows I want to talk about here. There’s the show that you pay for: the high-quality, beat-perfect and burlesque-circus-dance hybrid that encourages you to drink, and encourages you to have the time of your life. And then there’s the show that is about as political and subversive as anything I’ve seen this year, and incredibly, does so within a mainstream context.

First up, the show that you pay for. This is the show that you want to go to for your Christmas party. It’s the show that you take your straight dude friends to make them wriggle awkwardly. It’s the show you prepare for with a few wines beforehand, then a few more wines during the show, and then you take tipsy photos with the performers afterwards. It’s an hour and a half (including a handy interval) of high-energy performance by some of the most well-proportioned men you’ll ever see in your life, wearing barely any clothes. These men are also incredibly good at what they do, which is perform a very specific hybrid of burlesque, dance and circus. 

Nobody is doing work like Briefs in this country, with the exception of Dust Palace, who usually tend more towards the narrative side of the circus-theatre blend. Briefs Factory is more full-on and spectacle-driven. It’s designed to overawe you and appeal to your more base instincts first, then get you dancing and drinking, and make you think later.

The Briefs Boys. Photo: Kate Pardey.

It’s easy to see circus and find it impressive initially, but once you’ve experienced a lot of circus shows the thrill of seeing humans do death-and-physics-defying acts can dull really quickly (and unfortunately, because – and this is maybe silly to point out – it’s very hard to do circus). Very much to Briefs Factory’s credit, their circus is genuinely still stunning. Even more impressive than that, it’s emotionally engaging. A big reason for that is the cast are hugely charismatic – they spend a lot of the pre-show time making personal connections with the audience members in the foyer, so by the time we see them hanging many metres above the air we’re all invested in their safety.

The music, courtesy of Kim ‘Busty Beats’ Bowers (who was also the musical director and MC for this year’s excellent Hot Brown Honey), lends the entire show an eclectic but specifically queer-leaning soundtrack. There’s no other show where you’re going to hear Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ and Nicki Minaj’s ‘Starships’ and we’re all the poorer for it, honestly.

And that says a lot about Briefs. It’s a show that is as invested in getting you to have a good time (‘Starships’) as it is in making you feel (‘Running Up That Hill’) and think (a pitch-perfect use of Australian Crawl’s ‘Reckless’ that made me rethink the song entirely).

The play that is audible in the soundtrack ripples throughout Briefs. Fez Faanana is a delightfully playful and commanding MC; we want to watch Faanana own the stage, and we want to be insulted and brought into their games, as she messes with the form and messes with the games. Faanana opens the world of Briefs up to us, and invites us in, and it’s hard to overstate this, but it’s one of the best times I’ve had in a theatre in 2017 (perhaps rivalled only by another Briefs Factory production, Hot Brown Honey).

Fez Faanana. Photo: Kate Pardey.

And then there’s the political side of Briefs: Close Encounters.

Political theatre looks different in 2017 than what you might think. When you think of political theatre, you probably think of naturalistic sets and people talking about conspiracy theories and government corruption, which is less political theatre and more theatre about politics. In 2017, political theatre is the work that Julia Croft does. It’s the work that Barbarian Productions in Wellington are doing. It’s the work that FAFSWAG are doing. It’s work that questions the way the world works, that breaks down mainstream thought processes, that wants to destroy the status quo and uplift the stories of those who weren’t part of it.

Briefs is political theatre. It doesn’t look like it from the marketing. It looks like the show that your office girls-and-gays go to and blow the entire social club budget because they have such a good time, and it is that show. But it’s also work that wants to make you think, and feel.

From the start of the show, Fez Faanana is conscious about making this a safe space for the audience; it’s a haven from the shitstorm that is 2017. Faanana welcomes people from all genders, with the specific addendum that whatever gender you are is ‘nobody’s fucking business’, and they make it incredibly clear that this is not like other shows” this is a different, alternative space.

Which, in a large venue like Q’s Rangatira, with Real Housewives and other reality stars sitting in the audience, is a big deal. It’s a mainstream venue which is still not a safe space for queer people or people of colour (a Venn diagram which Faanana fabulously inhabits the heart of), that is converted into an alternative space by the people inhabiting it, and explicitly declaring it to be so.

Where it actually gets political – subversive, even – is when the acts begin and you realise that you’re watching queer bodies be unashamedly sexual, and more than that, be unashamedly desirable, onstage in a very public, very mainstream context.

Fez Faanana and Thomas Worrell. Photo by Kate Pardey.

Nowhere is this more visible than an act halfway through the show, set to Sevdaliza’s dark and brooding ‘Human’. Fez Faanana and Thomas Worrell walk onstage, Worrell jumps into a cage hanging from the ceiling and the pair do a mixture of circus and dance in concert with each other. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I walked out of the theatre, and there are small moments in it that I want to hold close forever, like Faanana reaching his hand out and spinning Worrell in the cage, or Faanana’s gorgeous cape-gown hybrid being blown up into the air while Sevdaliza croons ‘I am flesh I am blood I am more than human.’

In that act, I saw not only a complicated, well-rehearsed and technically complex blend of dance and circus, I saw two gay men perform an intimacy onstage that I’ve never seen, and I saw a crowd of a few hundred people see that and feel something as well. And if I’ve never seen it, and I’m going to take a leap and assume I’m more well-versed in gay media than most, I can imagine they haven’t seen it. And to share in that moment with that crowd, that specific, highly mainstream, is something that I haven’t had.

That might not sound important to you, and if it doesn’t, then I’m unlikely to convince you that it is important. I’m still pretty sure you’ll enjoy Briefs anyway – you don’t actually have to think about it. Watch the pretty men.

Photo by Kate Pardey.

But as a gay man watching Briefs, as a gay man who is still frustrated not just by the amount of gay representation on our stages, but the limited range of that representation (you’re either Will or Jack, or you’re a closeted self-hating gay, there are no other gay personalities sorry bye!), it’s really, really important.

There’s a power in seeing a gay man, and a group of gay man, be so explicitly and publicly homosexual onstage (with emphasis squarely on sexual) and be adored by a crowd of people. There’s no shame here, there’s no disgust, there’s no hiding. At the risk of using a word which has been rightly co-opted, there’s only pride here.

Briefs made me feel seen. Not just as an audience member, because Briefs is exactly the kind of theatre I want to see, but as a gay man. When you’re sitting in an audience of the mainstream, people who aren’t going to see the Barbarians or the FAFSWAGs, and you see somebody see, admire and desire someone who is just like you, that feels momentous.

I wish we had more theatre, more circus, more dance, more anything like this in New Zealand. As a queer theatre maker myself, it makes me want to get out and make work, not necessarily work like this – because god knows I couldn’t get myself more than a foot off the ground even if I tried – but so other people like me can feel seen. It’s a specific, and perhaps limited, thing to take from Briefs, and god also knows that you can go along and have wines and watch attractive men do defying things, but you can also take away what is one of the most vital experiences you could have in a theatre this year.

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