Writer: Taylor Mac
Directors: Taylor Mac and Niegel Smith
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
“This is going to go on a lot longer than you want it to,” warns Taylor Mac at the start of his three-night residency at the Barbican Theatre. The worrying thing is that, even in the show’s first few minutes, you’re inclined to agree.
And yet we in London are being treated to but a slice of the show. A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, in its entirety, takes a full 24 hours to perform: a decade of American popular music, from 1776 to the present day, focussed on every hour. Taylor Mac and his musical director Matt Ray have performed the full show in a single, day-long session once: more often, it is spread over multiple nights, such as when it headlined the Melbourne Festival in 2017.
Here, though, only the first three of the 24 hours are presented, in a performance which is both part of LIFT and of the Barbican’s own 2018 season, The Art of Change. And that season’s title befits this show – for while it starts off as a queer drag artist berating their audience for not participating enough, by the end both it and the audience have changed. Not fully, mind, but there is a definite thawing.
Many of the audience already seem to be long-term Mac fans, who know what to expect and are a little too over-ebullient in their appreciation in the early stages. That sort of performative appreciation, where an audience member keeps looking round to verify that their enthusiasm has been noted by all around, perhaps distracts a little too much from what Mac is trying to achieve on stage.
Backed by a tremendous 24-piece band – in the full piece, one member would peel away each hour, allowing Mac to conclude the day-long celebration of music a cappella– 18thcentury folk songs, many of which have survived through to today,are given modern arrangements varying from the bombastic to the wistful. In the first hour, though, Mac’s somewhat limited vocal style, either full-vibrato belt or weak balladeering, dismays the heart. With the prospect of a three-hour show, running without interval, the thought of the entire evening being played at such a level is a dismaying one.
Even the initial attempts at audience participation – a prerequisite for any Taylor Mac show, and essential for A 24-Decade History…– fall flat. It doesn’t help that the directions given to the audience are vaguely described, such that even the willing participants aren’t very sure what they should be doing. Even the assistance of the Dandy Minions, a collection of local queer and drag performers, can’t rescue the early stages of the show.
But then, gradually, everything warms up and the show within begins to emerge.
In the second hour of the show, Mac takes Oh Dear, What Can the Matter Be?’, a tale of a woman waiting for her sweetheart to return from the fair, into an examination of the oppression and subjugation of women, weaving in songs by Robert Burns (delivered in afrobeat style) and an anthem to female emancipation to the tune of God Save the Queen.
It is at this point that Mac’s anarchic style, which just comes across as disorganised in the first hour, begins to really bear fruit. And as the third-hour approaches – devoted to drinking songs, with free beer and ping-pong balls distributed to the audience in tribute to the noble student art of beer pong – one can see the appeal that the other 21 hours of this show may bring.
Throughout, there are repeated restatements by Mac about how and why queer and drag artists exist – breaking the established social constructs in order to inspire those who feel rejected by societal diktat. This is not “universal” art, Mac insists: after all, what is meant by “universal” usually means “appealing to straight white men, and the wives that brought them to the theatre”.
And Mac’s work is unashamed in its refusal to be for everybody – but the suspicion at the start of the show is that this might be a proxy for work that doesn’t bother with quality assurance. By the end of this three-hour “first act”, though, Mac has warmed up, delivering a softly sung lullaby with the beautiful vocal tone completely absence from the show’s first songs.
Even the performative audience members have settled a little, allowing the weirdness on stage to speak for itself. And by the end of the three hours, even those who entered with cynicism can see the appeal that the rest of Taylor Mac’s 24-hour marathon would bring.
Continues until 30 June | Image: Contributed