Barbara and the Camp Dogs – The unholy cry of Ursula Yovich. (Theatre Review)

Barbara and the Camp Dogs

Belvoir Theatre

2-23 December – You can grab your tickets here

We “good” Aussie white folk nod in recognition to the theory of “Decolonise, Don’t Recognise” but putting these good intentions to task is another thing altogether. As the extraordinary Ursula Yovich stands before us and yawps her lament, we are desperate to expunge the distance between us and “her people.” However, we must acknowledge that “people” by itself is a progressive noun. Today this notion is coloured by the rhetoric of Pauline Hanson, Donald Trump and the tendrils they nurture that reach each of our newsfeeds, Facebook pages and even families. To denounce populism in this fashion is to deeply confuse questions of statehood, nationhood and “people.” The open refusal of intellectualism strips context from these conversations, and the richest people in the world, the white first world middle and upper classes, are now able to confidently claim a similar victim status to Australia’s indigenous population. We have always detested the original occupants of this nation, but this refusal of the last two years has a particularly sharp edge to it as we face the very real prospect of white supremacy being questioned politically, legally and socially.

The cries of Urula Yovich are the most powerful you are likely to see on a Sydney stage. She has a spectacular voice, and a remarkable talent, not just for her custom energetic performance, but songwriting and playwrighting also. Barbara and the Camp Dogs is written by herself with Alana Valentine, spawned from an alter-ego “Barbra” Yovich draws upon for many reasons, not the least (we suspect) a joyful authenticity of connectedness and spirit. It’s a thing to witness this performance, and every reason in the world to part with hard earned cash to sit (and then stand – she receives many standing ovations for this work) before it.

However, none of Ursula Yovich’s generosity, nor Barbara’s feistiness, nor the remarkable talent displayed by all connected to this production, can save the white middle class from being just that. We are condemned to our history, one that continues (with our confused blessing) to continue to be played out. It cannot be ignored that Barbara does not want a standing ovation, but we good white folk have a genuinely tough time in understanding how we hold to key to Barbara’s emancipation, or indeed, if we do. The official people of Australia are the white middle class – spoken as if “Middle” could be admirable – and this stems way back to the dominant ideology of our society as Aristotelian. Aristotle established the excellence of what cleaves to the golden mean. That is, the establishment of a significant middle class is the means necessary for a democratic style constitution. Even the Chinese are celebrated in our newspapers (all of which are propaganda tabloids today) as growing a strong middle class. That is, a group who will consume new products who want to be left in peace. There, as here, the power of the capitalist despotism can be considered democratically legitimate. The middle class are after all, the “people” of capitalist authoritarianism. In this context – the context of our lives – “people” means those who are included as well as those who are not.

We, “the people” watch Barbara cry and articulate with great clarity, the situation of “her people.” We are bonded by a capitalist democracy defined by a distinct hierarchy that judges people according to physical characteristics over which they have no control. Barbara and her folk are a constitution of a people in pursuit of their historical existence, insofar as that aim is denied by colonial and imperial domination or, in our case, domination by an invader. Thus, the “people” exists according to the future perfect of a nonexistent state. These people assert their existence politically in the strategic aim of abolishing the existing state. “The People” therefore is a political category leading up to the existence of a desired state denied existence by some power. Disturbingly, it can equally be a category existing in the aftermath of an established state of which a new people, both interior and exterior to the official people, requires its demise.

So we come to the rather unpleasant realization that the word “people” has a positive sense only with regard to the possible nonexistence of the state. This is either the forbidden state whose creation is desired or the unofficial state whose disappearance is desired.

The question for the white middle class then, standing and cheering Barbara and her Camp dogs, becomes one of genuine identity. Is it a fictitious applause, designed as an alter ego to join forces with Ursuala Yovich’s alter ego? A mere fantasy that alleviates and separates us temporarily from our guilt? Or do we clap inside the vision of a solidarity that removes the middle class and establishes a new system aside from the capitalist agenda that seeks to remove that which cannot serve it?

Rarely have I seen a performance that delivers these complexities with more clarity. Ursula Yovich is joined by Elaine Crombie and Troy Brady in heartwarming performances that leave the audience in tears. Directed by Leticia Cáceres with exuberance and passion, the makeshift pub setting by Stephen Curtis provides the perfect pub/club energy for the authentic engagement required to deliver such a strong and potent point. Writers Yovich and Valentine are well aware they will play to a mostly white monied (although we all think we are poor, don’t we?) audience and they skew their angles perfectly to call forth a goodness in solidarity they optimistically rely upon. It’s well served because, spirit invades the room through this production and the feelings of genuine generosity flow from the cast outward. The three performers are joined on stage by the band made up of Jessica Dunn, Michelle Vincent and Debbie Yap who are a joy to watch and more importantly witness. The show is impeccably rehearsed, the songs unforgettable and the sound flawless. Barbara and the Camp Dogs is a show of epic social and political proportions but more than that it hints at solutions to a problem that holds the seeds to a different world.

Barbara and The Camp Dogs suggests, to our amazement, that another way forward might be possible.